Meet the AAS Keynote Speakers: Prof. Héctor Arce

In this series of posts, we sit down with a few of the plenary speakers of the 240th AAS meeting to learn more about them and their research. You can see a full schedule of their talks here, and read our other interviews here!

headshot of Prof. Hector Arce for AAS 240

“The Arecibo Observatory was a great source of inspiration for students around the world to go into STEM – especially those from Puerto Rico, including myself. In fact, I haven’t met a single Puerto Rican astronomer who hasn’t said that they were inspired by Arecibo.”

Dr. Héctor Arce, Professor of Astronomy at Yale University and proud Puerto Rican astronomer, will give a plenary lecture at AAS 240 focused on the Arecibo Observatory. In his talk, titled “Building the Future of Radio Science with the Arecibo Observatory”, he will not only remind people of Arecibo’s impressive science output over the years, but also discuss what he and a like-minded group of people think should be done to rebuild after the tragic loss of the telescope in November 2020.

“I got interested in physics and astronomy because my grandfather was an amateur astronomer, and he had a poster of Arecibo in his house,” Dr. Arce reminisces. He spent his undergraduate years at Cornell University and Ph.D. career at Harvard University focusing on using radio telescopes to study Molecular Clouds (MCs) as the sites for star formation in galaxies. After a couple of postdoctoral positions at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory and the American Museum of Natural History, he received a faculty position at Yale University in 2008 and has been there ever since.

Dr. Arce’s research currently focuses on surveys of the environments around protostars, and how protostars impact their surroundings, using data from the ALMA observatory. Thinking back to his early career, he mentions that he was lucky to have an extremely supportive set of advisers. His advice to students is, “Always try to find supportive mentors, even if they are not your direct research adviser – it’s crucial to have people you are comfortable with and who will support you throughout your academic journey.”

Although most of his current research relies on ALMA, Dr. Arce has a special admiration for the Arecibo Observatory, and a desire to see it replaced in the future. He talks about how in addition to stellar and galactic science, Arecibo also catered to planetary scientists and researchers who use the Earth’s ionosphere as a natural plasma lab. He believes that any conversation about the future of the observatory should include stakeholders from all three communities. He is part of a group that is currently advocating in Congress for increased NSF funding in the hopes of building a new, even more advanced radio telescope or radio interferometer in place of the old observatory. “We don’t want NSF to reduce funding for other existing or future facilities in order to fund the rebuilding; there should be more funding allocated to go towards building a new facility in place of Arecibo.”

When asked about the advantage that a new radio array at Arecibo would have over existing observatories like ALMA or the VLA, Dr. Arce points out that this new design would be a telescope and a planetary radar, which the others are not! A new array that has a more compact baseline than the VLA would also be better suited to studying extended emission in nearby galaxies – a topic that is central to one of the Astro2020 Decadal Survey’s main goals of understanding galaxies in their cosmic ecosystems. Right before Arecibo collapsed, $20 Million in existing research proposals relied on it — projects that would have extended its high scientific output by at least another 5-10 years. According to Dr. Arce, this makes it all the more imperative to build a replacement.

He also adds that in addition to its prolific science output, Arecibo was a powerhouse for science education and outreach – serving students in Puerto Rico but also across the United States and the world. The telescope was regularly used for high school and undergraduate student trips and observing workshops, more so than most other observatories. According to Dr. Arce, this enormous contribution to training the next generation of scientists was just as important a component of Arecibo’s legacy as the myriad discoveries it made.

Speaking of the current state of their advocacy efforts, he mentions that the US Senate recently passed a unanimous resolution to acknowledge the importance of the Arecibo Observatory, and recommended that the NSF and other agencies look into replacing its loss with a new and more advanced set of instruments. “This hasn’t come with any guaranteed funding yet, but it’s an important start,” he remarks optimistically. Another source of hope for Dr. Arce is the majority sentiment of the people of Puerto Rico – he discusses how back in the 1950s when it was first built, opinions on the island were a lot more divided, and rightfully so given Puerto Rico’s political status, but in the present day people are quite proud of the observatory. “I think it’s fair to say that most people in Puerto Rico would love to have it back, and I think that’s true regardless of their opinions regarding the political status of the island,” he concludes.

Tune into Prof. Arce’s Plenary Lecture at 3:40pm PT on Monday, June 13th at #AAS240! 

Astrobite edited by Isabella Trierweiler

Featured image credit:  American Astronomical Society

About Pratik Gandhi

I'm a 3rd year astrophysics PhD student at UC Davis, originally from Mumbai, India. I study galaxy formation and evolution, and am really excited about the use of both simulations and observations in the study of galaxies. I am interested in science communication, teaching, and social issues in academia. Also a huge fan of Star Trek, with Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation being my favourites!

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