Ben Placek, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor


Ph.D. Physics, State University of New York at Albany (2014)

M.S. Physics, State University of New York at Albany (2012)

B.A. Physics, Alfred University (2010)

Ben Placek is currently an Assistant Professor of Physics in the Department of Sciences. Dr. Placek’s primarily teaches the Engineering physics sequence at Wentworth, but has also developed an elective called The Physics of Alien Worlds. Dr. Placek’s background is in the detection and characterization of extrasolar planets (exoplanets)--planets that orbit stars other than our own. He primarily uses data from the Kepler Space Telescope to infer physical properties of exoplanets and their atmospheres.  Additionally, Dr. Placek focuses on developing and incorporating advanced statistical techniques centered on Bayesian inference that allow for more robust handling of exoplanet data.

Dr. Placek recently gave a TEDx talk in his hometown entitled "Our Place in the Universe".  Check it out for more details on his research!

Our view of the universe is constantly evolving.  Most recently, the evolution has been spurred by the launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, which has detected over 2500 exoplanets along with over 4000 exoplanet candidates that require more vetting between 2009 and 2017.

Kepler detects exoplanets by monitoring the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars simultaneously over a long period of time.  This results in a light curve.  If a planet exists around a particular star, we may be lucky enough to observe the planet cross in between Kepler and its host star, thus blocking a portion of the light we would normally receive from the star.  This is known as a transit.  In addition to transits, exoplanets can be characterized by their phase curves, which represent brightness variations caused by reflection from the day-side of the planet.  As the planet orbits its host star, Kepler will "see" it undergoing phases similar to how we observe the Moon’s changing phases.  These variations are displayed in the figure below, which depicts the phase curve of the transiting exoplanet Kepler-78b.  The reflection effect peaks when the planet is in it’s full phase (like a full moon) and when it is behind it’s host star.  This explains the dimming event observed at the same time. This is called the secondary eclipse and is caused by the star blocking out light from the planet’s day-side.

Light curve plot with observed data

Modelling exoplanet phase curves and secondary eclipses is my primary focus, however I have experience working with Transit Timing Variations (TTVs), optimization techniques for observing exoplanet phase curves, as well as exomoons.

Journal Publications

  1. Placek, B. Angerhausen, D., and Knuth, K.H., "Analyzing Exoplanet Phase Curve Information Content: Toward Optimized Observing Strategies". AJ, 2017.
  2. Knuth K.H., Placek B., Angerhausen D., Carter J.L., D’Angelo B., Gai A.D., Carado B. EXONEST: The Bayesian Exoplanetary Explorer. Entropy. 2017; 19(10):559.
  3. Angerhausen, D., Dreyer, C., Placek, B., Csizmadia, S., Eigmueller, P., Godolt, M., ... & Dunham, E. W. (2017). Simultaneous multicolour optical and near-IR transit photometry of GJ 1214b with SOFIA. A&A, 2017.
  4. Heller, R., Hippke, M., Placek, B., Angerhausen D., Agol, E. "Predictable Patterns in Planetary Transit Timing Variations and Transit Duration Variations Due to Exomoons", A&A, 591, A67, 2016.
  5. Placek B , Knuth, K.H., Angerhausen, D. "Combining Photometry From Kepler and TESS To Improve Short-Period        Exoplanet Characterization", PASP, 2016.
  6. Placek, B., Knuth, K.H., Angerhausen, D., and Jenkins, J.M. "Characterization of Kepler-91b and the Investigation of a Potential Trojan Companion Using EXONEST", ApJ, 2015.
  7. Placek, B.,"Bayesian Detection and Characterization of Extra-Solar Planets Via Photometric Variations",Dissertation, ProQuest/UMI. 2014.
  8. Knuth K.H., Habeck M., Malakar N.K., Mubeen A.M., Placek B., "Bayesian Evidence and Model Selection" arXiv preprint arXiv:1411.3013 (2014).
  9. Placek, B., and Knuth, Kevin H.. "A Bayesian Analysis of HAT-p-7b Using the EXONEST Algorithm." arXiv preprint arXiv:1409.4152 (2014).
  10. Placek B., Knuth K.H., Angerhausen D. "EXONEST: Bayesian Model Selection Applied to the Detection and Characterization of Exoplanets Via Photometric Variations." The Astrophysical Journal, 2014.
  11. Knuth K.H., Placek B., Richards Z. 2012. "Detection and Characterization of Non-Transiting Extra-Solar Planets in Kepler Data Using Reflected Light Variations". N. Chawla and A.N. Srivastava (eds.) Proceedings of the Conference on Intelligent Data Understanding 2012.
  12. Placek B., Richards Z., Knuth K.H. 2012. "Detecting Non-Transiting Exoplanets". U. von Toussaint (ed.) Bayesian inference and Maximum Entropy Methods in Science and Engineering, Garching, Germany, July 2012, AIP Conference Proceedings, American Institute of Physics, Melville NY.
  13. Kilgard, R., Placek, B., Prestwich, A. "The X-ray source population of IC 10". Scott Wolk, Antonella Fruscione, and Douglas Swartz (eds.) Chandra's First Decade of Discovery, Boston, MA, September 2009.


Presidential EPIC Mini Grant: Physics in Virtual Reality ($4,000)

Presidential EPIC Mini Grant: WSPEC:  Wentworth’s Multi-Purpose Scientific Drone ($5,000)

NASA Early Career Collaboration Award. 2014. 

Distinguished Dissertation Award. State University of New York at Albany. 2014. 

C.R. Carpenter Teacher Scholarship. State University of New York at Albany. 2013.

Student Adjunct of the Year. State University of New York at Albany. 2013. 

Akira Inomata Award for Outstanding Research. State University of New York at Albany. 2013.