El Reg talks beer and binaries with a boffin named Boffin

Astronomer Henri Boffin: Marriage guidance counsellor to the stars

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Interview We at El Reg like a good boffin, so we're delighted to bring fellow boffophiles a quick interview with Henri Boffin, who's staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) facility in Paranal, Chile.

Henri Boffin at his desk in Paranal

A boffin named Boffin: Henri at work in Paranal

We're obliged to Henri for taking the time from his busy astroboffinry schedule to answer our questions, and for being a good sport. Read on...

El Reg: Tell us a bit about your background and current work.

Henri: I obtained my PhD at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in May 1993, working on Barium and other peculiar stars, that is, principally binary stars where one of the components is a white dwarf and is thus the end product of a star that went through the giant phase.

After my PhD, I did the equivalent of a masters in journalism in the newly created section of "Journalist & Scientist" of the French Ecole Superieure de Journalisme in Lille and I then even worked in a magazine for a short time, before going back to research for a two-year post-doctorate at the Kobe University, Japan.

El Reg: Forced to work as a humble hack, eh? We sympathise. Sorry, carry on...

Henri: Then I went for another post-doc to Cardiff, Wales, and in 1998, I obtained a permanent position at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, in Brussels. I stayed there until 2003, when I moved to ESO in Munich, to work in the Education and Public Relations department as this allowed me to combine my two passions and expertise as a scientist and communicator.

Night-time panorama of the Paranal facility

Starry, starry night: The ESO facility at Paranal

However, it became evident over the years that it was difficult to combine active research with such a position, so in 2010, I went to work as a staff astronomer in Paranal, home of ESO's Very Large Telescope array, where the real action is. I am now support astronomer at the Unit Telescope 1 and instrument scientist for the FORS2 (FOcal Reducer and Spectrograph) instrument.

The VLT at Paranal. Pic: ESO

Very large indeed: The VLT at Paranal

El Reg: You're Belgian, so how does Chilean beer measure up to your country's world-renowned brews?

Henri: It is indeed very hard to beat Belgian beers! Especially as they are so many of them, so you basically have one for any mood, any food and any weather, lighter ones to be refreshed or strong ones to take after dinner, while chatting with friends. Chilean beers are OK but their choice is more limited. But then, in Chile, there is the wine, which is certainly some of the best in the world.

El Reg: Very diplomatically put. When did you first get interested in in astronomy?

Henri: When I was 12 years old, thanks to my physics teacher who managed to share his passion with enthusiasm. From that time, I decided I wanted to do this, if possible. As a thank you token, I named one of the asteroids I discovered after the name of my physics teacher, Jean Nemghaire. Another of the asteroids I discovered is named after my children (Yukiniall), and another after my former mentor in Kobe University, professor Takuya Matsuda.

El Reg: Was your ultimate job choice a case of nominative determinism, or did you ever consider becoming, for example, a hairdresser?

Henri: Hairdresser? No, certainly not! Just look at the picture of when I was young on my web page ;-). But it wasn't nominative determinism, as I don't think that my name has any particular meaning in French or Flemish; I only discovered the English meaning while doing my PhD. My mother always said that I would be a doctor. I guess she did not think of me becoming a doctor for stars - the ones in the sky, not in Hollywood.

El Reg: You're right - that hairstyle is terrifying. Legend has it that Robert Hanbury Brown was the first scientist to be honoured with the affectionate title "boffin" during WWII. What was his contribution to astronomy?

Robert Hanbury Brown

The boffins' boffin: Robert Hanbury Brown

Henri: He played a crucial role in the development of radio astronomy and radio interferometry, a technology that is now promising to be transformational with the coming of age of ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), which is certainly the most powerful astronomical machine currently in operation. He also did huge breakthroughs in the use of interferometry in the optical and was the first to measure diameters of stars, in particular of Sirius.

I also use this technique with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at Paranal for my science, and my last paper concerns the determination of the diameters of stellar vampire stars thanks to a new interferometric instrument, called PIONIER.

El Reg: Evidently, you have a particular interest in Am (metallic-line) stars and binary systems. What's the attraction?

Henri: Indeed, my research deals mostly with binary stars. I like to describe myself as a marriage counsellor for heavenly bodies. Stars are like humans and most of them live in couples. It is often necessary to use this fact to be able to study single stars (for example, to determine the masses of stars), but more importantly, as in all couples, the two stars will interact in various ways and this leads to very interesting phenomena. Look for example at the planetary nebula Fleming 1 (ESO1244), with its huge jets and amazing shape. This cosmic bubble is the outcome of quite dramatic interactions in a stellar marriage.

ESO view of Fleming 1

Crikey: Planetary nebula Fleming 1

El Reg: Crikey. Sirius A is the best known metallic-line star. How does it interact with its partner Sirius B? Is tidal braking responsible for Sirius A's Am condition?

Henri: As all massive stars, A stars generally rotate very fast. However, being in a binary system, Sirius A felt indeed the interaction of its companion when the latter was a red giant, i.e. before it finished its life as a white dwarf. This tidal braking of Sirius A's rotation is most likely the cause of the Am condition, although it might also be the result of some pollution from the former red giant. This latter scenario is what I developed for my PhD thesis to explain the existence of barium stars.

Artist's impression of Sirius A and B

A marriage made in heaven: Sirius A and B

El Reg: Good stuff. Finally, and crucially for our readers, have you ever sported a handlebar moustache, smoked a pipe or owned a shed?

Henri: I am afraid none of these. And I don't wear a white coat in my office!

El Reg: That's a terrible shame, but we wish you further stellar success, even without the benefit of traditional boffin accoutrements. ®


Henri's latest findings include the possible discovery using astrometry of a planetary-mass companion to the closest couple of brown dwarfs to Earth (Luhman 16AB), and the discovery of a very close binary system composed of two white dwarfs in the aforementioned planetary nebula Fleming 1.

He's also just had a paper accepted about the study of symbiotic stars with interferometry, as a follow-up to another study of these stellar vampires done in 2011.

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