João Alves: The birth of stars and other mysteries

The moment when Lisbon-born João Alves, as a child, suddenly discovered a black night sky dotted with thousands of stars during a visit to his grandparents in the interior of Portugal, engraved itself strongly on his memory. Years later the stars are not merely objects of admiration, but also the main focus of his research. The Professor of Stellar Astrophysics at the Department of Astronomy will speak about the origins of stars and planets – and possibly reveal some information about his "rather crazy" side project – in his inaugural lecture on Friday, 7 October 2011, 18.00, in the Main Ceremonial Chamber.

"I bought my first astronomy book when I was nine or ten and I still have it. It's somewhere here in my office. I don't remember ever wanting to be anything else but an astronomer from quite early on. My parents never truly understood why I came up with this, but they were always supportive", João Alves, since February 2010 at the University of Vienna, reflecting on his early passion for stars and the universe that finally led to a career in astronomy and a life on the move.

A scientific career develops

After finishing his masters in astrophysics in Portugal, a grant enabled Alves to do his PhD at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, USA. Straight after presenting his thesis back in Lisbon he continued his professional life as a post-doctoral fellow at the European Southern Observatory in Munich, where he worked his way up the ladder and became Head of the Department. 

Between 2006 and 2010 Alves got the chance to prove his management skills by leading the Calar Alto Observatory in Almeria, Spain. Furthermore, he worked as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Porto, before he discovered Vienna on a sunny day in September, when he was attending a conference of the European Astronomical Society. Not only was he thrilled by the city in autumn, but also by a position that was on offer – one he was soon to find out about. Hoping that his young children would be alright with another language besides Portuguese, Spanish and Italian – the mother tongue of his wife – Alves applied, got an offer and moved into his new office in the Vienna University Observatory in early 2010.

Austria joining ESO

"When I went to this conference in 2008 Austria had just joined the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, ESO, which is fundamental to my research. It allows any astronomer working in Austria to use the latest technology on the best telescope in the world, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile", the astrophysicist explains. Currently he's putting his effort into getting Austria involved with the next generation of ESO large telescopes, primarily by joining a consortium that is responsible for the construction of the first instrument for the so called "Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)". Once – in 1883 – the largest astronomical instrument in the world was the big telescope in the Vienna University Observatory, which nowadays mainly serves the public: "I strongly recommend a tour here as you can actually look through the telescope. Doing our research we normally just stare at a computer screen. I guess that is pretty unromantic for the general public", Alves laughs.

Being right there when stars are born

Why do we have stars? Why are there so many of them? And how do they form? Those are the questions that the new professor has been interested in for a long time: "It seems to me that forming stars is the universe's favourite activity", he concludes: "What we know is that they are born inside huge diffuse gas clouds. As an illustration, the problem is the following: How do you get one of these clouds that has, let's say, the size of Austria, and collapse it into something as tiny as a one cent coin?" To look through these dark gas clouds, "the mothers of stars", the scientist developed a new technique that works with infrared light. "I'm analysing what stars were right before they were born inside these clouds. So, in a way, I’m studying star seeds." 

Subsequently that also leads to research on planet formation: the leftovers of a gas disk – which forms when the cloud collapses – are the places where planets emerge. To find out about those things, observations with the VLT are crucial: "A typical observation only takes place once or twice a year, and only for a couple of days", explains Alves: "More and more, scientists don't even go to Chile, but rather work remotely with people based in the middle of the Atacama desert who perform the observation and send you the raw data. It is of course the data analysis, and figuring out what it all means, that is the most time consuming."

What's important for young astronomers?

To make the students competitive in this international environment, the professor tries to raise awareness about how important it is to write a good proposal and to be able to present one's research in front of others. Furthermore, he helps them to stop thinking in terms of exams and textbook knowledge when they are advancing in their studies: "I try to put across that they own their research line. There is no textbook, they actually have to write their own. That is research", the scientist smiles. On practical terms he considers it crucial that his students know their maths and physics, and learn at least one computer language very well. Other than that: "Make sure that you have a strong love for the subject. That fuels your desire to learn and even gets you through dark periods when nothing seems to work. "

Life in the universe

Exciting as the research on the formation of stars and planets is, the astrophysicist still has something else in mind, a "rather crazy project", as he says: the search for extraterrestrial life, another intelligent civilization in the universe, by searching for potential laser pulses from an advanced civilization. With other Austrian scientists he is currently investigating the possibilities to start a new "search" based in Vienna. To find out more about that, the origin of stars and planets and, last but not least, the Portuguese man who spends most of his free time with his three children in one of Vienna's many parks and enjoys "everything that is visual: photography, exhibitions, painting", visit his inaugural lecture. (dh)

Univ.-Prof. João Alves, PhD, Professor of Stellar Astrophysics at the Department of Astronomy holds his inaugural lecture "From darkness to light: the origins of stars and planets" on Friday, 7 October 2011, 18.00, in the Main Ceremonial Chamber.