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Million dollar idea pays off for SFSU

September 21, 2005

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy joined the SFSU faculty in 1983 with a crazy idea. Two decades later that crazy idea -- to find ways to detect and analyze planets outside of our solar system -- is not only a new scientific frontier; it has earned Marcy the prestigious Shaw Prize in Astronomy. The $1 million prize, referred to as the "Nobel of the east," was awarded this month in Hong Kong to Marcy, who will share the prize with Michel Mayor, a Swiss colleague and fellow pioneer in the science of extra-solar planet detection.

Marcy, who is an adjunct professor of astronomy at SFSU as well as a professor and director of the Center for Integrative Planetary Science at University of California, Berkeley, plans to donate $50,000 of his prize to the SFSU Physics and Astronomy Department.

"Of the first 30 planets ever found around other stars, 25 were discovered by our team at San Francisco State," Marcy said. "In 1999 we announced our discovery of the first system of planets ever found around any star (Upsilon Andromedae) from the SFSU campus."

Marcy maintains that his million-dollar idea wouldn't have become a reality without all the other American astronomers who contributed to the search including alums Debra Fischer, SFSU assistant professor of astronomy, and Paul Butler.

Butler, now a researcher at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., was completing a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in physics when he began to collaborate with Marcy. He devised much of the equipment and software for Marcy's project while a graduate student.

Fischer was also a graduate student when she joined Marcy's team in 1988. Now a leader on the Marcy team, she has made significant discoveries with n2k, an international consortium of planet hunters. Fischer believes the success of Marcy's work created a new subspecialty in astronomy and shaped the roadmap for future research and space missions.

"I think Geoff was asking the right questions at the right time," Fischer said. "He has excellent instincts and always seemed to know that the quest to find planets around other stars was a search of monumental importance. It directly addresses some of the big questions in science: Is our solar system unusual or typical? Is it likely that there are intelligent species on other planets?"

Since the Marcy team's search began at SFSU, more than 150 extra-solar planets have been detected.

Marcy's $50,000 donation will be used to build a scholarship endowment to support student research.

"We greatly appreciate this gift," said James Lockhart, chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department. "Professor Marcy is clearly one of the world's outstanding scientists and we are deeply honored to have him continue here as an adjunct professor. This generosity is just the latest example from a progression of things he has done to advance our department ever since his appointment."

This is the second time in the history of the Shaw Prize that astronomy scholars have been recognized. The international prize is managed by the Shaw Prize Foundation, established under the auspices of Sir Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong film producer and chairman of Television Broadcasts Limited, China's largest television production company. Marcy and Mayor joined an English molecular biologist and a Princeton University mathematician as the 2005 Shaw Prize awardees.

For more information about SFSU planet hunters visit the N2K Project Web site.

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified September 21, 2005 by University Communications