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Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
110 Eighth Street, Troy, New York 12180-3590 USA

(518) 276-6310
Fax: (518) 276-6680

Douglas C. B. Whittet
Douglas C. B. Whittet

Professor of Physics; Director, New York Center for Astrobiology


(518) 276-8413

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Ph.D., Astronomy, University of St Andrews, 1975.
M.S., Radio Astronomy, University of Manchester, 1971.
B.S., Physics (Hons.), University of St Andrews, 1970.

Career Highlights:

Since 1994 - Professor of Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
1991/94 - Associate Professor of Physics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
1980/90 - Senior Lecturer and Professor of Astronomy, Lancashire Polytechnic.
1978/80 - Post-doctoral Research Associate, University College, London.
1975/77 - Post-doctoral Research Associate, University of St Andrews.

Research Interests:

Our research seeks to test the hypothesis that organic molecules relevant to the origin of life are ubiquitous to interstellar condensations from which planetary systems are born. The principal carriers of the biogenic elements in interstellar clouds are submicron sized dust grains. The physical and chemical properties of these particles, and their evolution with respect to time in regions of active star formation, are important and topical issues in modern astrophysics which have potentially far-reaching implications for studies of the origin of life.

Research on star formation has been greatly stimulated in recent years by advances in infrared astronomy, providing a means of studying stellar populations deep within molecular clouds in regions hidden from view at visible wavelengths. Infrared observations also provide an extremely powerful technique for investigating the nature of interstellar dust: solid state spectral features contain a wealth of information on the composition, internal structure and thermal history of the grains. The spectral resolving power required to extract all information inherent in the profiles is now routinely available on both ground-based telescopes and the Infrared Space Observatory.

We are carrying out a systematic study of infrared dust features in a carefully selected sample of embedded young stellar objects and distant field stars viewed through molecular clouds. The primary aim is to explore the evolution of icy grain mantles in the cocoons of low-mass protostars, using the field stars as the 'control experiment' delineating dust properties in undisturbed molecular-cloud material.

Results are interpreted with reference to the optical properties of compounds synthesised in the laboratory under simulated interstellar conditions. Our observations provide detections of not only simple ices such as H2O, CO and CO2, but also organic molecules of various degrees of complexity and oxidation state, including CH4, CH3OH, H2CO, HCOOH and HCN. This program of research will lead to a clear understanding of the evolution of organic matter in dust in the environments of objects which are realistic analogs of the early Solar System.

This research is supported by the NASA Exobiology program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and is being carried out in collaboration with groups at NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, the University of Missouri - St Louis, and the University of Virginia.

Selected Publications:

1. D. C. B. Whittet et al. Observational constraints on methanol production in interstellar and preplanetary ices. ApJ. 742, 1, 28 (2011). DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/742/1/28.

2. J. E. Chiar et al. Ices in the Quiescent IC 5146 Dense Cloud. ApJ. 731, 1, 9 (2011). DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/731/1/9.

3. A. M. Cook et al. The Thermal Evolution of Ices in the Environments of Newly Formed Stars: The CO2 Diagnostic. ApJ. 730, 2, 124 (2011). DOI:10.1088/0004-637X/730/2/124.

4. D. C. B. Whittet et al. The Uptake of Interstellar Gaseous CO into Icy Grain Mantles in a Quiescent Dark Cloud. ApJ. 720, 1, 259-265 (2010).DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/720/1/259.

5. T. Fukue et al. Extended High Circular Polarization in the Orion Massive Star Forming Region: Implications for the Origin of Homochirality in the Solar System. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 40, 3, 335-346 (2010). DOI:10.1007/s11084-010-9206-1.

6. D.C.Whittet. Oxygen Depletion in the Interstellar Medium: Implications for Grain Models and the Distribution of Elemental Oxygen, The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 710, Issue 2, pp. 1009-1016 (2010). (ApJ Homepage) DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/710/2/1009

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