Mountain View Voice

News - June 11, 2010

Stars align for local astronomer

NASA Ames' Cuzzi wins top honor for planetary work

by Emily Hamilton

Jeff Cuzzi's office is buried deep in the maze that is NASA's Ames Research Center. Its walls tell a lot about him. There are yellow sticky notes with important contact numbers and reminders, a poster of the Grand Tetons, a model of an asteroid, and a 1981 Voyager picture of Saturn. As a radio astronomer, engineer and physicist, Cuzzi has devoted his life to studying the cosmos, and this year he was named the winner of the Kuiper Prize, the highest honor in planetary sciences.

Each year, the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences awards the Kuiper prize to honor outstanding lifetime contributions to planetary sciences.

"The prize honors the work, not the individual," Cuzzi says. "The real honor has to do with the other people on the list."

Other Kuiper prize winners include Carl Sagan, Eugene Shoemaker, and Cuzzi's mentor Jim Pollack.

The work that merited this recognition includes Cuzzi's "pioneering" contributions to the understanding of the formation of planets and rings. At Ames, Cuzzi's work has centered primarily around two topics: Saturn's rings and nebulae. He is interested in the composition and formation of these bodies, and has already made huge contributions to the current understanding of them.

"He is one of the most respected, admired, and sought-after individuals in our field," said Robert Haberle, chief of the Planetary Systems Branch at Ames.

Cuzzi received a bachelor of science degree in engineering physics from Cornell University, and a doctorate in planetary science from California Institute of Technology.

Becoming an engineer seemed "prosaic," Cuzzi said. Astronomy, on the other hand, fascinated him. He says he became interested in Saturn while observing Mercury.

"I wasn't one of those kids who always walked around with a telescope or anything like that," Cuzzi says.

Some of Cuzzi's most innovative work has been his fluid dynamical modeling, which "will help solve the mysteries of planet formation," according to a NASA press release

Cuzzi and his team use data from their observations to build these models, which represent theoretical processes of how asteroids and small planets form. Cuzzi says his team is the only group working on this earliest stage of planet formation, when particles of silicate and ice get put together for the very first time. Cuzzi's task is to correctly factor in the constantly changing effects of gravity on the system by identifying how particles and groups of particles affect each other.

"In waves on a beach, you see bubbles concentrated in certain areas. It's like that — sort of," Cuzzi says. Except instead of bubbles, Cuzzi is studying extraplanetary dust and gas.

Cuzzi and his team rely on the Ames supercomputers to produce their models. The computers solve the physics equations of motion based on the scientists' data sets, but designing the appropriate mathematical models is a human task.

"I am involved in the math," Cuzzi says, smiling. This is clearly an understatement.

An image of one of these particle models also decorates Cuzzi's office. He also has shelves upon shelves of files and books, one of which is a coffee table book about Saturn that he co-authored, entitled Saturn: A New View.

During his career, Cuzzi has also contributed to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which he calls a "creative thing that Ames created."

Cuzzi says that the question of extra-terrestrial life is one that cannot be ignored.

"There is absolutely intelligent life out there," he says.

SETI is one example of the innovative research done at Ames.

"NASA provides the flexibility to do high-stakes research," Cuzzi says, adding that the most important part can be asking the right question.

"Creativity in science is huge," he says.

Cuzzi says that more so than any prize, curiosity motivates scientists.

"It's what drives you to understand," he says.

Besides astronomy, Cuzzi is also interested in anthropology, playing tennis and nature photography. He has spent some time developing photos in a dark room, but asserts that, "Photoshop is better."

Though Cuzzi has come a long way in his study of planets and rings, he knows his work is not done. He plans to continue his research at NASA.

"You never really solve a problem," Cuzzi says. "There are always new questions to ask."

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