A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

A winding path

I’m in Tucson this week and right now about to go out to dinner as part of three days of talks and meetings and lunches all in conjunction with me being awarded the Marc Aaronson Memorial Lectureship this year. I do not tend to talk much about things like this because it seems a bit unseemly, but I am going to break my usual silence and tell you why this particular award is particularly meaningful to me.
The award is given every 18 months to an astronomer who makes a significant contribution to observational astronomy at a young age. I’m happy they didn’t check the birth date on my driver’s license. The lecture itself was last night, at the University of Arizona, and I began my lecture with a story I have never told anyone before. I said something like this:
There are several reasons why I am quite flattered and honored to be receiving this award. First, the list of the people who have received the award over the past two years is particularly impressive. It is thoroughly flattering to be considered to be in the same company as people who I think of as superstars in the field. It’s also gratifying to receive such an award from what I still can’t help but think of as “real astronomers.” Astronomers who study the solar system have long been considered the ugly step-sisters of astronomy. Nobody really wants to give us telescope time or accolades or awards. In fact, we had to set up our own societies so we could give each other awards and not feel totally left out.
Both of those reasons for being honored to receive the award, however, would be reasons I could give no matter what the award was. But, to me, receiving the Aaronson award means even more.
When I was a senior in college in 1987 [which, by the way, means I just had a 20th college reunion, which I am pretty sure disqualified me from being considered “young”] I found what I thought was going to be the field in which I was going to make my career. I had been doing research projects with physicists who were interested in the large-scale structure of the universe – where galaxies are, why they have the distributions they do – and I thought that that was about the most interesting thing that any human could possibly study. The only problem with the projects on which I was working was that there were more theoretical or computational than observational. I wanted to be someone who went out to telescope and collected data and discovered things myself. I didn’t want to just sit in the computer lab in the basement and make endless computer models about how the universe might be, I wanted to go out look at the night sky and figure out how it actually is.
Nobody did that at my university, so I started looking around to see if anyone did that anywhere. Every time I looked up the topic or anything related, a single name would always pop to the top: Marc Aaronson. Aaronson was an astronomer at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, and he was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I decided that what I really wanted was to be Marc Aaronson, but that, since this seemed unlikely, I was going to go to graduate school at the University of Arizona and I was going to work with Marc Aaronson.
That spring, Aaronson was crushed to death by the dome of telescope where he was working.
I decided maybe I wouldn’t go to graduate school. I went biking around Europe instead.
The following year I was ready to go, but Arizona didn’t seem right anymore. I ended up at U.C. Berkeley working with someone who did generally similar research on distant galaxies. Which, through a path that is convoluted to explain but extremely clear in my head, led to my Ph.D. thesis on the magnetosphere of Jupiter and my current work on the outer solar system. Which led me to Tucson, to receive the award. The citation reads:
Marc Aaronson Memorial Lectureship
Awarded to
Dr. Michael E. Brown
California Institute of Technology
November 21, 2008
for his outstanding research and lasting contribution to astronomy through the characterization of the outer solar system and the discovery of objects comparable to Pluto
To which, they could have added, which all came about through a winding complicated path whose direction was never certain, but whose start was clear after being pointed out by Aaronson.
I never met Marc Aaronson, but, based on his wife and daughter, who I met yesterday, I think I would have liked him. If I’d had a chance, I’d like to have said “thanks.”


  1. I was a first year grad student at Steward when Marc died. I still vividly remember the confused horror that descended upon the department. Although I'm no longer an astronomer, I'm happy to see the tribute to him, and that you have been honored in this way.

  2. Dear Mike :)

    Congradulations on being selected for the Marc Aaronson Memorial Lectureship. Your systematic, organized search of the skies for knowlege of the Kuiper Belt will set the standards and constraints for what is known about the outer solar system, rather than what we think we know, or merely guess. Actual observation is the cornerstone of everything knowing that's worthwhile learning.

    I looked up Marc Aaronson on Wikipedia. The accident was thoroughly investigated and steps were taken to see that this would not happen again. There was a safety switch, but the heavy dome kept rotating after the motor was cut off. I hate to say this, but it kind of sounds preventable, which makes it even more tragic.

    Being at the Wikipedia site I decided to look up the bravest hero of 20th Century science, geologist David A. Johnston. He was the only USGS geologist who correctly predicted that Mount Saint Helens would explode laterally rather than a columnar eruption. Knowing the danger, he went to the mountain and set up camp anyway, so he could study it. He successfully resisted very heavy political pressure to lift the evacuation order for the area which kept thousands away from the danger. On the morning of May 18, 1980, the mountain exploded. Thirteen years later they found his truck, but they never found him.

    As I often do when using Wikipedia, I examined the links at the bottom of the article and came upon this:


    This is an article on people who have sacrificed themselves for the cause of knowlege. One was Diane Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas, who was murdered. Poachers are suspected, but there are several other viable suspects listed in the Wikipedia article on her, and the crime has never been solved.

    I was surprised to see one of my favorite personalities listed there, Alfred Wegener. Wikiing him solved a minor mystery for me. Everybody laughed at his "crazy" theory of continental drift. So how did he get a career in science? Turns out he was a meteorologist who studied weather. He was in Greenland studying the polar vortex in November 1930 when he became lost in the blinding whiteout. His body was found on May 12, 1931.

    Wegener's is a case study in how theories are supposed to be formulated. Others before him had noticed that the west coast of Africa fits into the east coast of South America like a jigsaw puzzle but had not given it much thought. Actually Wegener came up with the idea when he noticed that fossils of Mesosaurus and Lystrosaurus occured on continents now separated by oceans. That in itself didn't mean much, but Wegener went looking for other evidence, like the aforementioned jigsaw puzzle, stratigraphy and mountain ranges which matched across oceans, other fossils, and of course climate, to bolster his theory of continental drift.

    People laughed at Wegener because he couldn't come up with a believable mechanism for continents to drift. He came up with "centrifugal force", which was spectacularly wrong, but still the evidence accumulated after his death; paleomagnetic shifts and the discovery of seafloor spreading became overwhelming. This set off the search for the right cause. which is convection currents in the mantle. Without Wegener's observations, they would never have thought to look for such a thing.

    Einstein started with a small piece of evidence; the speed of light is the same in all directions. Every time they measured this, they got the same thing, so it must be true. So the theories of the time must have been wrong. Einstein's theories seemed counterintuitive so all kinds of experiments were suggested; the result was always that the speed of light was the same in all directions and the consequences of that always came out the same.

    So, thank you very much for your catalogue of Kuiper Belt objects. We may quibble about details like the albedo of Orcus, which present instruments can't determing very well, but who would know to look if the catalogue didn't exist? Give yourself a pat on the back, for me.

  3. Hi Mike - Great entry! Thanks again for such a wonderful lecture and lively dinner conversation! Email me if you are up in the bay area.

    To many future successes,


  4. Hi Mike,
    I'm Marc's other daughter, Laura. Jamie forwarded me the link to your blog. I was so touched by your posting. Thank you for honoring my dad. It is so neat to learn how he inspired fellow astronomers. Thank you!

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  6. Laurel KornfeldApril 1, 2009 at 8:19 PM

    Forget Pluto, now you've really got me riled up. I graduated college in 1987 and I am YOUNG, period. I'm a kid, babyface, carefree lifestyle, wonder about the universe, no understanding of finance and bill paying whatsoever. You're young too, and even if you aren't living like a kid the way some of us are, take the fact that someone refers to you as young as a compliment and as true!