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
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.”