Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wow, I said, What's the Kuiper belt?

In the late summer of 1992, I was in the long middle years of my graduate studies at Berkeley [...] midway through a Ph.D. dissertation about the planet Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io. [...] One afternoon, as on many times previous, after spending too much time staring at data on my computer screen and reading technical papers [...], I opened the door of my little graduate student office on the roof of the astronomy building, stepped into the enclosed rooftop courtyard, and climbed the metal stairs that went to the very top of the roof to an open balcony. As I stared at the San Francisco Bay laid out in front of me, trying to pull my head back down to the earth by watching the boats blowing across the water, Jane Luu, a friend and researcher in the astronomy department who had an office across the rooftop courtyard, clunked up the metal stairs and looked out across the water in the same direction I was staring. Softly and conspiratorially she said, “Nobody knows it yet, but we just found the Kuiper belt.”

I could tell that she knew she was onto something big, could sense her excitement, and I was flattered that here she was telling me this astounding information that no one else knew.

“Wow,” I said. “What’s the Kuiper belt?”
From Mike Brown's How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, page 5f.

Congratulations to David Jewitt and Jane Luu for the award of the Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2012, and to, again, David Jewitt and Jane Luu, and Mike Brown, for the award of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics 2012, for bringing the Kuiper belt from hypothesis to reality!

Our Solar System is much larger today than it was 20 years ago, and I would be glad if these prizes help to make this known to a much wider public.

3 comments:

Alyssa said...

Well deserved! Dave Jewitt leads the research group who I was in direct competition with during my PhD, so I know their work well.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Stefan,

Thanks for the heads up on the awards. So let me also extend my congratulations to these committed and diligent scientists. What I also find interesting about this story and what many people may not be aware of is this being another classic example of how one scientific discovery can help to make another possible. That is I would hope David Jewitt and Jane Luu find themselves grateful to Willard Boyle and George E. Smith who invented the CCD (Charge Coupled Device), which made their telescopes ten times more sensitive to light detection then standard photography to have their search to be more efficient and achievable; although even so it took five years of dedicated work.

Best,

Phil


P.S. Another curious thing about this is the region of our solar system which they confirmed to exist is named after someone who’s theory about the region if it had been correct would had it not to exist today.