»  Profile: Rebecca Oppenheimer

Profile: Rebecca Oppenheimer

Curator and Professor


Dr. Oppenheimer is a comparative exoplanetary scientist: she studies planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. This nascent field is so young that much of the work involves developing the techniques needed to see these planets, so that their light can be dissected and analyzed. Her optics laboratory in the Rose Center is the birthplace of a number of new astronomical instruments designed to tackle this problem. In March 2004, Dr. Oppenheimer deployed the world's most sensitive coronagraph at the AEOS Telescope in Maui. See lyot.org for more information. In June 2008, her team deployed an even more precise and sensitive exoplanet imaging system at the Palomar Observatory. This instrument is called Project 1640 and involves researchers at AMNH, Cambridge, Caltech, and NASA/JPL. All of these instrumentation efforts, as well as several others including the starlight suppression system for the International Gemini Observatory Planet Imager project (GPI), were conducted in Oppenheimer's lab in the Rose Center at AMNH.

Oppenheimer's CV (PDF file updated February 2015)

Dr. Oppenheimer also works on faint white dwarfs, the remnants of normal stars, and brown dwarfs, star-like objects that are too small to be stars but too large to be called planets. She is the co-discoverer of the first brown dwarf, called Gliese 229B, and was the first scientist to study the atmospheric composition, chemistry and physics of a sub-stellar object outside our solar system.

Dr. Oppenheimer has served on numerous national and international committees related to astronomical research, physics and the state of astrophysics. Most recently she chaired NASA's Senior Review and published an OpEd in the Los Angeles Times about it ( link ). She was part of the National Academies, National Research Council Decadal Survey of Astrophysics (Astro2010), providing analysis and assisting with prioritization of the next ten years of space-based astronomical missions. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, where she has taught graduate and undergraduate courses. She has published over 150 research papers and articles for the general public, co-curated the space show Journey to the Stars and curated the exhibit Searching for New Worlds.

Oppenheimer's education related efforts include curation of the AstroBulletin series of news items and bi-annual documentaries distributed to over 40 other museums and science centers around the world. She is also Curator-in-Charge of the Digital Universe Atlas.

Dr. Oppenheimer is a transgender woman who published under the name Ben R. or B. R. Oppenheimer prior to July 2014.

Full Research Paper Listing on ADS

Google Scholar Publications Listing

ORCiD Identifier and Profile

Digital Universe Atlas

The Known Universe is a film produced from the Digital Universe Atlas that has been viewed by tens of millions of people around the world.

This short film provides an overview of the modern astrophysical view of the universe. What you will witness is based entirely on real observational data and the interpretation of that data through the laws of physics. Every mountain, planet, satellite, star, galaxy, quasar and our cosmic horizon are represented accurately in both size and position relative to each other, based on our best scientific knowledge to date. No interpolations have been made, and only objects that have actually been observed are included. As a result, you will see vast regions of the universe where we have not yet been able to map the locations of particular types of objects, for various scientific reasons. These gaps are akin to the regions labeled 'terra incognita' in old globes and maps, before people had fully documented the geography of the world. This visualization starts from the mountains of Tibet and takes you swirling though our database out to the furthest reaches of the universe that are observable. As we travel away from Earth, the distance from home is represented in the length of time that light takes to travel the same distance.

The film is based on the Digital Universe Atlas, an on-going project of the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium, which consists of the world's most complete and scientifically accurate four-dimensional map of the universe. This visualization, while demonstrating some of the wealth of the Digital Universe Atlas, features only a fraction of the database. For example, one can use the software to represent the uncertainties in a given object's position in space, or mark those stars with known planetary systems in orbit about them, or highlight stars or galaxies of a particular type.

We hope you enjoy this short movie that shows where we are in a much larger universe. It was developed in partnership with the Rubin Museum of Art for their exhibition Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe. The software, called UniView, which visualizes the Digital Universe Atlas, was developed jointly by SCISS and the American Museum of Natural History. It is used in planetariums world-wide.