David Trilling: Uncovering the Mysteries of the Universe

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David Trilling, PhD

Assistant Professor of Astronomy
Department of Physics and Astronomy
College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences


Imagine taking your seat on an airplane and striking up a conversation with the fellow next to you. Out of curiosity you ask, “What do you do for a living?” The man responds with a casual, “Oh, I study how planetary systems form.” So you ask, “How do they form?” His face lights up, and he enthusiastically responds: “Well, we don’t know!” As Northern Arizona University (NAU) Assistant Professor of Astronomy David Trilling would tell you, “In 10 seconds we have already come to the cutting edge in the science.”

Dr. Trilling’s specialty at NAU is in the evolution of the solar system and planetary systems. “I’m really interested in stuff that we really don’t know anything about,” says Trilling, “If it’s something that no one knows anything about, it’s easy to start asking the fascinating and intriguing questions.” Being curious about the unknown questions of solar systems has always been fundamental to Trilling’s interest in science. Trilling got his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and his PhD from the University of Arizona in planetary sciences before moving to NAU to continue his research and to teach.

Trilling’s passion for science is not founded in just one area, but rather grounded in a curiosity that explores bigger questions of human existence, life, and how the universe works.  Currently, Trilling’s research is focusing on near-earth asteroids and also studying the farthest material in our solar system. Although these subjects may seem esoteric, they are incredibly pertinent to people’s everyday lives. A recent example was the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, with the power of an atomic bomb, shattering countless windows and injuring more than 1,100 people. Coincidently, at the same time another near-earth asteroid called 2012 DA14, discovered by an astronomer in Spain, was said to have made the closest recorded pass by Earth for its size, flying between earth and geostationary satellites.

Thus Trilling’s work, which is to understand the internal properties of asteroids and to monitor their location in space, becomes extremely relevant to ensuring people’s security and safety.  For example, knowing an asteroid’s physical properties, such as temperature, size, and ability to reflect sunlight, may help deflect it from Earth’s orbit. According to Trilling, “As we understand one asteroid better, we can extrapolate that information to thousands of others that look like it.”

“Astronomy is always relevant in people’s lives,” notes Trilling. And it’s often not in the ways that we imagine. “For example, I find this current [asteroid] event fascinating,” says Trilling. “Scientists went out to a village in Russia near where the asteroid hit, and all the people were selling and bargaining for the asteroids that just fell in their backyards. It’s interesting to see how the world is interacting with the city, these people, and this event. I think the sociology of the event is just as interesting as the science, and they work together.”

Trilling and his colleagues work mostly with telescopes in Tucson, Hawaii, and Chile to do their research, but they also use telescopes in Flagstaff—one at NAU, and several off Lake Mary Road, including telescopes that are run by Lowell Observatory.  Sometimes they come across unexpected information when they are searching for something else, such as an asteroid that suddenly comes into view.

In addition to Trilling’s extraterrestrial research, he emphasizes his down-to-earth passion for teaching and developing research projects with his students. Although most students who approach Trilling to be their mentor have had no research experience, Trilling makes sure that they have a rich opportunity to develop in their area of greatest research interest. “I believe in making a difference, in having rich encounters. My door is open. I enjoy seeing students who often start at zero and accomplish their research projects; some even publish a research paper.” 

Trilling’s enthusiasm is contagious. You only need to spend a few minutes talking to Trilling to appreciate his passion, curiosity, and commitment to creating an environment in which everyone can thrive.  

--Kelly Zarcone

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