“Are there other planets like Earth out there” This question has remained unanswered for a long time - only recently the detection of exoplanets has moved into mainstream astronomy. These faint objects, however, are difficult to observe directly; especially as they are often outshone by the stars they are orbiting. It was during Isabelle Baraffe’s early career that scientists started discovering planets outside our own solar system with high-precision measurements. The first definite exoplanet 51 Pegasi b was discovered 1995 in the Pegasus constellation.
Baraffe has been fascinated by these astrophysical objects ever since. So far, astronomers have observed exoplanets mainly indirectly. There are more than registered exoplanets, but only some 50 have been detected by imaging. Baraffe, however, chose a different approach: she tries to understand extra solar planets from theoretic principles, starting with theoretical physics. By modelling the physical characteristics of exoplanets - their formation, their atmospheric and interior structure, and their evolution - she is trying to better understand these mysterious objects.
After her PhD in Astronomy from University of Paris and University of Göttingen in 1990 she worked at MPA and University of Göttingen as a postdoc. In Lyon, she held her first professorships before moving to England where she joined the University of Exeter in 2010. There she is now the Head of Astrophysics and holds the Chair of Astrophysics. In addition to being named Biermann Lecturer 2015, she has received a number of national awards in France, Germany and the UK, such as the Johann-Wempe award in 2004 for her outstanding theoretical work about low-mass stars, brown dwarfs and extrasolar gas planets. Without her evolutionary models of these objects, some of the most exciting recent observations with the Hubble Space Telescope or the Very Large Telescope could not have been interpreted. Moreover, she was awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council in 2012 to work on this area.
Biermann lectures 2015 by Prof. Isabelle Baraffe: