Please tell us how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
When Saurabh Jha was young, he received a telescope as a gift. “I would use it not even knowing exactly what I was looking at. I liked thinking about what was out there.” Jha was interested in science. He enjoyed learning about the world.
“I knew going into college I wanted to do something with physics,” Jha says. Physics is the study of forces and motion. He especially liked applying his knowledge of physics to astronomy, the study of stars and planets. But it was not until a family trip to the Grand Canyon, where there is no light from large cities, that he first saw the Milky Way and knew for sure that he wanted to be an astronomer.
What did you study?
I did my Bachelor’s (Maths and Physics) from Harvard followed by a PhD in Astronomy (Harvard).
In college, Jha was able to participate in astronomy research. He had the opportunity to work with a Harvard University professor who was searching for extrasolar planets — planets outside our solar system. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Jha says. “And we did discover an extrasolar planet.”
Tell us about your research
As a researcher, Jha has been immersed in two exciting areas of astronomy: supernovas and extrasolar planets. Supernovas are stars that reached the end of their life cycle and exploded. “It is really amazing how so much we’ve learned could not have been taught 15 years ago. The fact that astronomy, which is perhaps the oldest of all the sciences, is still evolving and changing is very exciting.”
After Jha finished his bachelor’s degree, he began his work on supernovas as a graduate student and continues to contribute to astronomy as a professor. In 1998 he worked with a team that observed supernovas moving away from the edges of the universe. They wrote a paper with their conclusion that the universe is expanding faster instead of slower, as was previously believed.
The lead author of the paper, Dr. Adam Riess, and the leader of the research team, Dr. Brian Schmidt, recently were awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics (they shared the prize with Dr. Saul Perlmutter, leader of a competing team that reached the same conclusions). Jha attended the ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, with other members of the original team. He admits that the recognition is nice, but the best parts for him were doing the science and working with a great team.
What do you do currently?
Jha enjoys studying supernovas. He works mostly on Type 1a supernovas, the explosion of a star that has completed its life cycle as a white dwarf. Using these supernovas as tools to measure cosmic distances has “the promise to help answer some fundamental questions about the universe” such as how old it is and what its fate may be.
Currently, Jha and Riess, with their coworkers and students, use images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to find the oldest supernovas in the universe. “Science, and especially this kind of science, is an adventure,” Jha says. “You don’t know what you’re going to find.”