Punahou grad's future looks bright
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
He was named for the stars, and it's the stars that may become his life's work.
As a junior at Princeton, Hawai'i's Orion Crisafulli, 21, has been working with NASA for the past six months doing preliminary research on a new space telescope comparable to the Hubble, but able to search for the existence of planets far beyond our solar system.
As such, he's playing a key research role in a future endeavor to find life outside our solar system on planets like our own.
"It's called the Terrestrial Planet-Finder Project, and its job is to search for small, rocky, earth-like planets orbiting around stars about 10 light years away," said Crisafulli, a graduate of Punahou School and the son of Jim and Rolanse Sau-Kwan Crisafulli.
Jim Crisafulli is research and development coordinator for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Rolanse Sau-Kwan Crisafulli is administrator for O'ahu Work Links job training and placement program run by the city.
"Nobody has actually ever seen a planet rotating around another star in the solar system because the stars are too bright," said the younger Crisafulli. "All you can see is the sun's slight wobble due to the gravitational pull of the planets, and from that you infer there must be planets."
But by blocking out the light of the central bright star in such a system, you should be able to see the planets, Crisafulli said. And that's what the new telescope would do.
Through an academic adviser at Princeton, Crisafulli was introduced to the NASA project and joined a graduate student already at work on it. Crisafulli's job: to build a mock-up of the proposed telescope to see if it will work.
"They've proven it theoretically but never has anyone built a mockup of the telescope," he said.
Until now. Crisafulli has succeeded in building the model, and proving the theory correct. So far, he has blocked about one-third of the light necessary and is still conducting experiments.
"It's going to be my independent work project next semester. As juniors, we can substitute an independent project for one class."
He expects that when the theory is completely corroborated, NASA will give the go-ahead for Princeton and the company that built Hubble, Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., to begin work on the new satellite telescope.
But the stars are not the only lights in Crisafulli's universe. An apt music student, he also studies piano, and has a special fondness for Beethoven. When he was born, on Beethoven's 210th birthday, his father burst into song, singing his new son the theme from Beethoven's 9th symphony.
"My dad said the doctors were astonished," Crisafulli said. "I stopped crying and closed my eyes and everyone said 'Wow, this kid is listening.' "
For a music theory class as a Punahou senior he transcribed a Brahms rhapsody for piano into a work for three trombones and a tuba.
"I was curious to see how it would sound on a low brass instrument," he said. "It sounded great."
The piece was subsequently performed by the Honolulu Symphony.
As he looks to a bright future, Crisafulli is also considering another love, quantum computing, a field that harnesses the laws of physics to build faster and more powerful computers.
"No quantum computer has been built yet and I was hoping to go after that," he said. "These things will be capable of amazing computing power billions of times faster than computers today."
They could break all present security codes, he said, but also establish unbreakable encryption systems no hacker could penetrate. "As soon as a hacker tries to look at the code, the code will self-destruct and establish a new code," he said.
Orion grew up in Hawai'i as an amateur astronomer, traipsing with his parents to places like Dillingham Field on the North Shore where there are few lights, in order to look deep into space with the family telescope.
"We've always had telescopes," he said. "Something about the universe and the possibility for exploration and journey to the stars fascinated me."
As his father says, on the night of the boy's birth, the senior Crisafulli stepped out of the old Kaiser Hospital, looked up at the sky and saw Orion, the seeker, at its zenith, directly overhead. So the baby was named after the Nebula M-42.
"The nebula is in the sword of orion," said the senior Crisafulli. "It's a stellar birthplace, where new stars are formed."