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Haumea and Harmonies

An Astronomical View of Connections

The final notes of a beautiful song ring from the piano. A computer runs data on ultraviolet light from a distant dwarf planet. This is all in a day’s work for Seneca Heilesen, an Astronomy and Physics major and Music minor from Richmond, Virginia.

It all started in high school. Seneca knew she wanted to pursue a field of study that would keep her learning new things every day, and figured that science was a good place to start. She loved all of her science classes and deliberated between several different disciplines. Then she noticed a pattern: time and again, Seneca found herself Googling questions about physics for fun. Following the call of her curiosity, she enrolled in the Astronomy and Physics major at BYU and fell in love. She is also taking the Music minor. When I asked what she plays, Seneca listed off the piano, organ, bell tower, and classical voice.

For her Honors thesis, “Investigations into u'-band Photometry of the Haumea System,” Seneca is studying telescopic data from the u’-band—and no, the u’-band isn’t the latest boy band sensation. “U” stands for ultraviolet radiation, electromagnetic waves that are shorter than the frequency of visible light. The u’ filter is typically used to observe hot objects like stars. Seneca said that few people look at darker and colder objects in the u’-band; in fact, what drew her to this project was that her own group took some u’-band pictures just for fun and the data ended up surprisingly brighter than expected.

Narrowing down observable u’-band objects, Seneca has targeted a dim and distant dwarf planet, Haumea, only discovered in 2004. About the size of Pluto, Haumea is shaped like an egg and boasts two moons. It sits in the Kuiper Belt, the cold space in our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Seneca gathers data on Haumea using a 3.5-meter telescope located in New Mexico. Using color filters, she analyzes how the light changes as the planet rotates. The color of the light indicates certain elements, which tells us what Haumea is made of. As we learn about the composition of objects within our solar system, we will know more about how the solar system was formed. Although Seneca is still working through her thesis, she shared one observation: her data confirms that Haumea has a spot in the red-light band, which could indicate an interesting composition.

Years before beginning her thesis work, Seneca was just beginning her journey in the Honors program. She admitted with a smile that she was interested in Honors “because I’m an overachiever.” What made her truly love the program, though, were the class discussions. One of her favorite classes was an Unexpected Connections course that tied together the psychology and social science of humor. She enjoyed paying attention to what made her laugh and why. Overall, though, her favorite class was the Honors 320 Great Questions Essay course.

Seneca’s Honors 320 essay tied together her love for science and music. Explaining her essay, she said, “The point of music is to communicate and help people feel emotionally what you’re trying to express.” A remarkable piece of music, 4’33” by John Cage, is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence; the music is the sounds of the audience expectantly fidgeting around. Seneca said that sometimes this is how astronomers feel looking into the universe. We search for extraterrestrial life and are puzzled when all we hear is the sound of our own human fidgeting. Still, when the Voyager spacecraft was sent into the unknown, we included sounds of earth and recordings of music. Astronomy and music are both about connection, Seneca said, as much as they’re about understanding the world around us.

While we discussed astronomy, Seneca shared some misconceptions that people have of this major and career. First, she said, "Astronomers don’t know all the constellations.” They don’t sit at telescopes looking into the sky and sketching things onto a notepad—at least not since Grandpa was born. Astronomy is very much based in computer programming, data analysis, and other technical work. Second, astronomers don’t know everything yet! Some people feel that there’s nothing much left to discover in space. “This is a field of study that’s very much alive,” Seneca said in response.

Seneca also told me that she didn’t pursue the Physics and Astronomy major because she likes math. In fact, she said, “I tried to get through my math classes as quickly as possible.” Seneca sees mathematics as a means to an end. The draw of astronomy, for her, is that it connects the largest scale objects like galaxies and supernova with the smallest scales of quantum mechanics. “There are many more connections than we think,” she told me—and proved it. Seneca is making connections between atoms and stars, music and science, and dwarf planets and data.

When she’s not analyzing telescopic data or performing a masterpiece, you can find Seneca hiking, reading, or cooking. She has worked as a TA for Honors 320 ever since she took the class and considers it to be an outlet for her love of writing (something astronomers don’t do as often). Seneca is excited to complete her thesis and graduate in April.