Astro Boy: Q&A with Ray Jayawardhana, a U of T prof in search of life on other planets

Astro Boy: Q&A with Ray Jayawardhana, a U of T prof in search of life on other planets

Already famous on Earth, U of T astronomy prof Ray Jayawardhana searches for life on other planets

(Image: Daniel Shipp)

So, everyone calls you RayJay?
Everyone in astronomy. None of my personal friends call me that. When I moved from Sri Lanka to the U.S. to do my undergrad at Yale, people had trouble pronouncing my full last name. My e-mail account was “RayJay.”

In 1998, when you were a graduate student at Harvard, you spotted a disk of dust around a faraway star known as HR 4796A. Why was that such a big deal?
The dust disk was kind of the signpost of an infant planetary system. We were possibly catching planets in the act of being born. It was very exciting.

Since then, you’ve largely focused on studying planets outside our solar system. Is that what your new book, Strange New Worlds, is about?
It’s about how you look for life on other planets. Back when I started graduate school, we didn’t know for sure that there were any planets orbiting normal stars beyond our solar system, and now we know of more than 500. Technology has made the pace astonishing. We are living through this amazing age of discovery, and it seems like people would want to know about it as it happens.

You’ve been in Toronto a few years now. How do you like it so far?
I’ve been here since 2004. I was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I was invited to give a talk here; the U of T had a position open and one thing led to another. I liked the idea of living in a big cosmopolitan city. I live on the border of Yorkville and Rosedale. I walk to work in 20 minutes, listening to my iPod.

What’s on your iPod?
All kinds of weird things. I like jazz with Afro influences. I’m also a bit of a politi­cal junkie (U.S. and Canadian politics), so I listen to a lot of political podcasts.

You’ve published a book for middle schoolers, Star Factories, and you’re trying to make astronomy accessible. Why is that important to you?
I’m interested in having the public be part of the excitement of the new discoveries. In 2009, my company, CoolCosmos, put astronomy ads onto 3,000 TTC vehicles. People are used to thinking of astronomy as something remote, but it’s not: atoms in our bodies actually come from dead stars. There are trillions and trillions of neutrinos going through you every second. You’re really connected.

What’s your ultimate goal?
I will almost certainly get in trouble for saying this, but in pubs you will hear people talking about Canadian authors or bands very excitedly. There’s a lot of that kind of cultural identity. But I don’t get the feeling that science and technology are part of the cultural identity. I’m by no means trying to make everybody a scientist or simply increase funding for science. The overall vision is a lot more broad. I’m seeking a change of culture, a change of the conversation.

You say travel is one of your favourite parts of the job?
I had never left Sri Lanka before I was 18, and now I’ve been to every continent. I’ve just come back from Antarctica. I was there with an eight-member U.S. meteorite-collecting expedition. It’s the windiest, harshest continent on Earth, and it also happens to be the best place to find rocks that have fallen from space. Among the 900-plus meteorites we found, one was so unusual it might have come from Mars. It’s being classified by NASA right now. The idea of coming up close and personal with a piece of Mars is pretty neat.

Do you really think that proof of life on other planets will be found during your lifetime?
Quite possibly. It’s science, so until you find it, you can’t say. But we have to face that possibility in a very real way. It will have implications that are hard to fathom—it has implications for art, for history, for religion, for our sense of ourselves at a very fundamental level.