In January 2016, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science Konstantin Batygin, along with Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and professor of planetary astronomy, discovered evidence for a Neptune-sized planet on an eccentric orbit hidden deep in the Kuiper Belt, the expansive field of icy debris beyond Neptune’s orbit. On Wednesday, December 7, Batygin will present this evidence for the existence of the so-called Planet Nine in the Richard C. Biedebach Memorial Lecture of the Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series. The lecture will begin at 8:00 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.
What do you do?
I study the origins and evolution of planetary systems, including our own. I am fascinated by the dynamics of orbits—especially chaotic ones—and the physical processes that determine their final architectures. I also spend a substantial fraction of my time thinking about planetary interiors, planetary magnetic fields, and protoplanetary disks—the disks of material from which planets form.
Why is this important?
One of the greatest questions ever asked is, “How did the world around us emerge?” This seemingly basic question cannot be answered without a full understanding of the formation and the early evolution of the solar system. Studying the solar system’s present-day dynamical structure can help us unravel this remarkable story, while characterizing systems of extrasolar planets—planets outside of our solar system—can provide context for how our home world fits into the galactic planetary census.
How did you get into this line of work?
By accident. I met my undergraduate adviser at a party and got involved in planetary research as a consequence of that encounter. Then, by what was probably a clerical error, I got into grad school here at Caltech and completely fell in love with planetary science.
Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech’s iTunes U site.
Edward Stolper, Caltech’s William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology and provost, has been selected as the 2017 recipient of the Roebling Medal, the highest honor given by the Mineralogical Society of America. The medal recognizes “scientific eminence as represented primarily by scientific publication of outstanding original research in mineralogy.” Stolper will be named a Life Fellow of the society and will receive a medal designed by sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks and struck by the Medallic Art Co., which also mints the Pulitzer Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Stolper, who also holds the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair, studies the origin and evolution of igneous rocks in the solar system. His work has spanned field-based, laboratory-based, and theoretical investigations of igneous rocks from a wide range of environments on the earth, from the moon and Mars, and from meteorites representing the earliest history of the solar system. He has also contributed to understanding the processes by which planetary interiors melt; the roles of water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur in igneous processes; and the oxidation states of magmas and the earth’s interior.
Stolper earned a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in geological sciences from Harvard College in 1974; a master’s in geology from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1976; and a PhD in geological sciences from Harvard University in 1979. He arrived at Caltech that same year as an assistant professor of geology and was named associate professor in 1982, professor of geology in 1983, and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology in 1990. He served as the chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences from 1994 to 2004 and as interim provost in 2004. He became Caltech’s ninth provost in 2007 and, in 2013, he was appointed the Larson Provostial Chair. From July 2013 to July 2014, he served as Caltech’s interim president.
Stolper is a member of the National Academy of Sciences; a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Geological Society of America, the MSA, the Meteoritical Society, and the American Geophysical Union; and a foreign member of the Royal Society of London and the Academia Europaea.
Among other honors, he is the recipient of the V. M. Goldschmidt Award from the Geochemical Society, the highest award of the international geochemical community; the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America, awarded for distinction in the application of physics and chemistry to the solution of geologic problems; and the Arthur Holmes Medal from the European Geosciences Union, awarded for scientific achievements in terrestrial (or extraterrestrial) materials sciences. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh (2008) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2012), and was named an honorary alumnus of Caltech in 2004.
The Roebling Medal was named in honor of Colonel Washington A. Roebling (1837–1926). Roebling served with a New York artillery battery during the Civil War, during which he saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. He is best known as the chief engineer and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. In his private life, Roebling developed an interest in mineralogy and collected more than 16,000 specimens, which he allowed to be freely examined for scientific purposes. After his death, his collection was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Roebling served as a vice president of the Mineralogical Society of America in 1924, just a few years after the organization was founded, and he left a substantial donation to the society when he died, which supports the medal that bears his name.
Previous Caltech recipients of the Roebling Medal are Linus Pauling (PhD ’25), C. Wayne Burnham (MS ’53, PhD ’55), and Peter Wyllie, currently professor of geology, emeritus.