Bright mind

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Focus on Astrophysical Sciences

Bright mind

By Alaina O’Regan

If a planet orbits two stars, how close can it get to one of them before all of its oceans boil off? Could a giant explosion have launched living organisms from Venus all the way to Earth 3.5 billion years ago? What caused the violent birth of one of Earth’s brightest annual meteor showers?

These are all questions that Princeton undergraduate Wolf Cukier has explored, and he hasn’t even earned his bachelor’s degree yet.

The Princeton senior is no stranger to making discoveries. In high school, Cukier stumbled upon a planet that orbits two stars during a summer internship at NASA. He was helping to search for planets outside our solar system by looking at dips in starlight that happen when a planet passes in front of a star. Cukier was tediously poring through data from a telescope when he came upon something unusual.

“I think it was on my third day looking through this data, and I found an interesting signal,” he said. “I sent a list to my supervisor of about 100 interesting targets, emphasizing one that I thought was the most interesting. That one was actually a planet.”

The discovery landed the high school student a flood of media attention, including feature articles in national news outlets. “The experience was a bit surreal,” Cukier said. “One day I’m on my way to a Science Olympiad competition, and I get a call from a reporter at The Washington Post.”

Unearthing mysteries

Earlier this year, Cukier examined the origin of the Geminids meteoroids, a stream of tiny dust grains that appear to us as shooting stars each December. The Geminids meteoroids have fascinated scientists for decades because, while most meteoroids trail behind a comet, which is a chunk of ice and dust, the Geminids are emitted from an asteroid, a rocky object that normally doesn’t produce a tail.

Cukier and Szalay found that the Geminid meteor shower was likely born from a sudden, catastrophic event.

Cukier teamed up with Jamey Szalay, a research scholar in the NASA-funded Princeton Space Physics Lab, to explore how the Geminids meteoroids could have formed from an asteroid. By running computer simulations of different possible scenarios, they found the Geminids were likely born from a sudden, catastrophic event such as a violent collision or explosion. Cukier became the first author on the resulting publication in the June 2023 issue of Planetary Science Journal — not a small feat for an undergraduate — and was invited for an interview on CNN.

An earlier research experience for Cukier came in 2021, on a project that explored the origin of life on Earth. Cukier read a study in an astrobiology class that asked if a meteorite strike on Mars could have caused enough destruction to launch microbe-carrying particles through space and all the way to planet Earth. Cukier worked with the course instructor, Christopher Chyba, Princeton’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor in International Affairs and professor of astrophysical sciences, to explore whether this scenario could have been possible for Venus, and found that to be less likely than for Mars.

Cukier pursued this project to fulfill one of his “junior paper” research requirements, of which each third-year undergraduate majoring in astrophysical sciences at Princeton must complete two. Cukier, however, did his first junior paper as a sophomore.

Chyba said he knew Cukier was prepared to take on independent research when he read his final class paper. “I think I proposed the topic to him with two sentences,” Chyba said. “And Wolf ran with it, and explored the literature in many different directions to get the pieces he needed to write a serious research paper. With more work, it probably could have been submitted for publication.”

This summer, Cukier teamed up with Adam Burrows, professor of astrophysical sciences, to explore what exoplanets are made of by looking at how light bounces off their atmospheres. “Knowing how exoplanets are structured gives us more information about the environment in which they were formed, and can give us interesting insights into atmospheric physics in general,” Cukier said. “And of course, whether or not these planets can support life is always an interesting question.”

The stars are the limit

For as long as Cukier can remember, his mother, a geologist, provided scientific explanations for questions about dinosaurs, outer space and any other query that his inquisitive mind could conjure up. “The fact that my curiosity was always encouraged meant that my interests in these questions continued to grow,” Cukier said.

Cukier aims to continue to pursue planetary research as a career and is currently applying to graduate programs. “I like looking at our solar system because it’s observable and tangible, but it’s still heavily unknown because we’re all here on our little planet,” he said. “We’re looking out at Saturn, Titan, the Geminids meteor shower… all of this is really cool to think about. If you think about the universe at scale, it almost breaks your mind.”