His Finalist Year: 2006

His Finalist Project: Finding ways to measure the mass and age of brown dwarfs

What led to the project: From ages three to five, Long Island, N.Y., native Adam Solomon thought dinosaurs were pretty cool. Then at age five he read a book on the planets and his loyalties shifted completely. Studying heavenly bodies "is what I wanted to do," he says. "There was no other choice."

So when he joined Bellmore, N.Y.'s John F. Kennedy High School's three-year research program in his sophomore year in 2003, he immediately told his teacher, Barbi Frank, that he would be doing an astrophysics project. She saw two problems with this idea: First, Solomon had never studied physics or calculus, and second, none of her students had done a project in that area before. The school had no network of mentors.

Solomon tried to solve the second problem first. He spoke to famed Yale University astrophysicist Meg Urry, but then she discovered that he didn't know Newton's law of gravity, "which would make studying black holes hard." So, backtracking to solve the first problem, Solomon took physics at a community college in order to learn its fundamentals. Then, he started walking around the Columbia University astrophysics department knocking on doors, looking for mentors. "They all turned me down," he says.

One person finally agreed to forward his curriculum vitae (CV) to a postdoc who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Solomon was 15, so he didn't have much to put on a CV, never mind even having one. He went home and Googled "CV," pulled something together, and eventually started working with astrophysicist Kelle Cruz (now a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology) on a project involving brown dwarfs.

Brown dwarfs are basically failed stars. In normal stars, the swirling balls of gas present during the star's formation become so big that they press in on themselves, forming a central core that is dense enough to cause hydrogen atoms to fuse. This nuclear fusion is what causes stars to produce heat and light. Because brown dwarfs are smaller, lacking sufficient mass to start a fusion reaction, they radiate only very little light. That makes them hard to find, so they haven't been studied much until recently.

Solomon studied hundreds of brown dwarfs Cruz had identified. The project was remarkably charmed: By looking at the light that was given off, the two of them found new ways to estimate the mass and age of brown dwarfs. They published their results in The Astronomical Journal and other places.

"I see a lot of great research projects—but what Adam did was really incredible for a high school student," Frank says. He entered his part of the project in the 2006 Intel Science Talent Search and was named a finalist. He also won awards in two other national talent searches that year, one sponsored by the Siemens Corporation USA, and one by the Reno, Nev.–based Davidson Institute for Talent Development. All told, he raked in $88,000.

The effect on his career: "I don't know how I ended up winning all those competitions, but I'm very glad, very fortunate I did," he says. The money went a long way toward paying for Yale, where he is now a junior astrophysics major.

Having the opportunity to do research in high school did have a big effect on his opportunities in college. "It definitely gave me a leg up in applying for internships," he says. Because of his previous experience, this past summer he landed a position at Caltech doing research on hydrogen emissions from distant galaxies. It was a very different experience than his high school work. "In my Intel research I kind of stumbled on these really beautiful results," he says. "This summer, there was a lot less luck involved. There was a lot working against me." The data didn't go right, but he did learn that the course of scientific progress rarely runs smoothly.

What he's doing now: Although Solomon loves doing research, part of the reason he chose Yale is that he wanted a broad liberal arts education. "You caught me in the middle of reading The Iliad now," he says on the phone. Realizing that "I'll be doing research for a lot of years," he chose to spend summer 2007 in Spain taking classes in Spanish and learning to play the flamenco guitar. He also worked at a guitar store back home.

Eventually the plan is to get a PhD in astrophysics and make a career out of research—something to which he was introduced by the whole Intel experience. "I didn't even know what research was until I wandered into this program," he says. "I had the notion that I wanted to be an astronomer, but I never knew what it meant."

Now he knows, and tries to help other students at his old high school get the most they can out of their research programs, too. According to Frank, Solomon is a frequent class visitor during Yale breaks, helping students write the essays that explain their projects, and coaching them on what volunteer projects will create the best story lines for Intel and other contests. "If I ever want him to look at something," she says, "he's there."