Monday, March 21, 2005

UH astronomer wins
free-rein fellowship

A University of Hawaii astronomer is one of eight young scientists in astrophysics recognized with a prestigious $45,000 Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship.

Michael Liu, 34, Institute for Astronomy assistant professor, will use the fellowship to search for newly formed planets outside of Earth's solar system.

"It's really an exciting time to be working on a topic like this," he said. "There are a lot of exceptional telescopes and tools on Mauna Kea that are just right to work on this question. I'm very happy to be here and have this fellowship to pursue this stuff."

Liu's major interests are the physical nature and origin of such objects as brown dwarfs and extrasolar planets.

He is using the powerful Keck telescope on Mauna Kea to study formation of planets around young stars about 10 million years old. By contrast, Earth and the rest of our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

If planets form in the dust and gas that surround stars when they are born, their gravity can form patterns similar to wakes left by boats in the ocean, Liu said.

"The gravitational effect of the planet can be much larger than the planet itself.

"A small boat moving on the ocean can produce a wake that is hundreds of feet long," he said. "Sometimes the wake remains visible even when you can't see the boat itself."

Liu hopes that studying how young planets form around new stars will reveal how planets formed in Earth's solar system, as well as around other stars.

He said the beauty of the Sloan fellowship is that it is completely unrestricted, giving the researcher freedom to do whatever he or she wants.

Liu joined the UH Institute for Astronomy in 2000 as the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellow. He also received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Space Telescope Science Institute for working on Hubble-related science. "You can take it anywhere you want to go. I chose to stay in Hawaii," he said.

He was appointed as an assistant professor last year.

He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and is a graduate of Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley.

The Sloan Foundation established the research fellowships in 1955 to support and recognize scientists early in their careers, often in their first university appointments.

IFA Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki nominated him for the Sloan Fellowship, he said.

Thirty-two Sloan Fellows won Nobel Prizes later in their careers, and hundreds have received other honors, according to the foundation.

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