SF State Astronomer Discovers New Planets, Earns Worldwide Recognition
Dr. Geoffrey Marcy wins $1 million Shaw Prize
September 29, 2005 7:26 PM
The age-old question, “is there life elsewhere in the universe?” may be answered by Dr. Geoffrey Marcy, adjunct professor of astronomy at SF State.
In September, Marcy earned the $1 million Shaw Prize, an award presented in Hong Kong to scientists and mathematicians who achieve groundbreaking new relevant work in their field.
“It was like looking for pyramid power or hunting for aliens," he said with a laugh.
In 1995, Marcy’s research team “struck gold.” They found the first new planets and four years later in 1999, they found the first family of planets surrounding a star.
Marcy’s team at SF State is responsible for discovering 110 of the 160 new planets discovered by scientists around the world. Most of the planets they found were “Jupiter-sized,” but in recent years they have found Saturn and Neptune-sized planets as well.
In February 1996, Marcy’s work was a cover story in Time magazine. Ted Koppel covered the story at SF State shortly after.
"We now know that other planetary systems exist, but that their diversity renders our solar system just one type of many,” Marcy said in an email to physorg.com in August 2005, shortly before he was presented with the prize.
“His findings have radically changed the universe, because it enables us to compare our solar system to other solar systems,” said Adrienne Cool, associate professor of astronomy at SF State. “Everyone thinks about other planets, and now we can leap out to other parts of the galaxy.”
Cool said she can not think of a better person to earn the Shaw Prize, because “it shows what you can achieve when you work your butt off.”
“He’s done absolutely beautiful work,” she said, “reaching a level of precision no one could ever dream of 20 years ago.”
The Shaw Prize, which is considered the “Nobel Prize of the East,” was established in 2002 by Run Run Shaw, a wealthy Hong Kong filmmaker. The prize has only been given out for two consecutive years.
“It fills a gap that is not honored by the Nobel Prize,” said Marcy.
Many astronomy students at SF State are familiar with Marcy’s work, including those who have never had him in a class. He now teaches across the bay at UC Berkeley, where he also runs the campus’ center for Integrative Planetary Science.
“You always hear, ‘the universe is so big, there has to be more planets out there,’ and now we know where they are,” said Ashley Fischer, 19, a physics and astronomy major at SF State. She says it’s interesting that he “essentially found (most of this) by accident, as so many things in science are.”
Based on his findings, Marcy can predict what will happen in the astronomy world 25 years from now. Everything they have found over the past 10 years will prepare his team for discoveries to come.
"Something remarkable will happen," he said. “Humans will construct enormous telescopes to take Earth-like pictures of other planets. We hope for the first images of a pale blue water-laden world orbiting a star."
These predictions are “more than a wish list,” he adds. Scientists in the United States and Europe are already researching and designing the largest telescope built by man. It is called the “terrestrial planet finder,” and it will help astronomers determine if there are other habitable planets in the galaxy.
“Our question is, does life (on other planets) have a chance at developing into human form?” Marcy asks hypothetically. “Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And if so, how common is that life?”
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