Dr. Mike Brown shares 2012 Kavli Prize in Astrophyics

Having slain Pluto, Caltech astronomer Mike Brown is looking to the heavens again even as he is honored for his work here on Earth.

Last week, Brown was one of three scientists awarded the 2012 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. It came for his research on the Kuiper Belt, a collection of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune in which he discovered Eris, a rock about the size of Pluto but with 27% more mass.

The discovery caused scientists to reconsider the definition of a planet and knock Pluto from its status as one of the big nine in this solar system and to reclassify it as a dwarf planet.

Brown is not a killer at heart. Instead, he is something of a interstellar archeologist whose work, as he sees it, “is putting together the fossil record of the history of the solar system.”

But he said he doesn’t mind being called a killer. In fact, he was written a book entitled, “Why I killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”

Of his reputation, he said,  “I actually think it is kind of funny. It doesn’t bother me at all. It is a way to being the public into an engagement into the science. It allows you to start to have the conversation about the solar system and our new understanding of the system. If that is what people will latch onto to begin with, that’s great. Otherwise, they may not latch on to anything.”
Brown said the most exciting part of his current work is “not the Kuiper Belt, but whatever is beyond the Kuiper Belt.”

A rock called Sedna, 8 billion miles from Caltech, is part of a collection of objects that he said “is basically a fossil orbit left over from when the sun was born.”

Brown, who has been at Caltech since 1996,  said he enjoys teaching as much as research, and that one complements the other.

“It's hard to imagine being as good a scientist if you weren’t at a place that has such bright students” as at Caltech, he said. “Teaching is incredibly useful for my own research. Sometimes, as I’m trying hard to present something in the most clear way, I realize the way I have been thinking is not the right way to think.”

Brown will share the $1 million Kavli prize with Jane Liu of MIT and David Jewitt of UCLA, who do related research.

Brown got the call about the award in the wee hours of the morning as he was on his way to his 25th anniversary class reunion at Princeton University last week. Asked what he would do with his one-third share of the prize, Brown had only the faintest glimmer of an idea.

“ I just have not had time to think about that question very much,” He said. “I will buy a nice bottle of Champagne for me and my wife,” he said, “and when we get home and we’ll talk about it.”

-- Bill Kisliuk, Times Community News

Twitter: @bkisliuk

 

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