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SFSU planet finders win Discover award

October 22, 2003

Photo of Paul ButlerThey made headlines around the world in the 1990s with their discovery of a new planetary system outside Earth's own. Now, alumnus Paul Butler and adjunct professor of physics and astronomy Geoff Marcy get the star treatment, as recipients of the 14th annual Discover Magazine Award for Innovation in Space and Technology.

Among the "six revolutionaries who changed the world" receiving the Discover awards this year, Butler and Marcy are dubbed "the astronomers who proved Carl Sagan correct."

A 3-page spread in the November 2003 issue of Discover magazine reviews the pair's path toward discovery that started at SFSU where Marcy was teaching and Butler was a student. The article describes Butler's method for analyzing shifts in starlight that enabled the team to accurately identify distant planets.

Since their first finds in 1996, Discover states, "the duo has found more than three-quarters of the known extrasolar planets, the first solar system outside our own with multiple planets, the first extrasolar Saturn-sized planet, and the first extrasolar planet that transits between Earth and its sun…."

Butler earned B.A. and B.S. degrees at SF State and stayed on to earn a master's specifically so he could continue to work with Marcy. Butler is now based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Marcy, now a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, is also an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at SFSU where he had been on faculty from 1984-1999.

"I have a deep and abiding love of SF State," Butler told SF State News, adding that "The people at SF State are committed, deeply caring, not just going through the motions like at so many other institutions."

Butler and Marcy's SFSU planet-discovery team in 1998 included Debra Fischer then a post-doctoral researcher working with Marcy and now an assistant professor of astronomy at SFSU.

See the story in the November 2003 Discover, on newsstands now, or online at the Discover Awards Web site.

-- Ellen Griffin

From the archive:
Read original SFSU press releases about discoveries by Butler, Marcy and Fischer:
April 1999: "First system of multiple planets found around a Sun-like star"
September 1998: "Two more planets discovered beyond our solar system; San Francisco State University-based planet search has found nine of 12 extrasolar planets detected since 1995"


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Last modified October 22, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs