Q&A: Astronomers Jewitt, Luu on winning Shaw Prize and science as culture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Winners of the Shaw Prize gathered in Hong Kong this week to collect their US$1 million prizes for their contributions to the advancement of science.

This year’s winners are being honoured for their discoveries that helped re-write theories of the formation of planets and universe; explain how Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s and other neurodegenerative diseases come about; and shed light on how forces in the universe work through mathematics.

In this Q&A, we talk to astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu. Jewitt is the director of the Institute for Planets and Exoplanets at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Luu is a technical staff member at the Active Optical Systems Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory. They shared this year’s prize in astronomy for their 1992 discovery of the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system beyond Neptune that contains remnants of the early solar system.  

Q. What did your discovery tell us about the formation of the solar system?

DJ: [About] 25 years ago, people thought the solar system had these planets just moving in circular orbits, in the same orbits ever since they were formed. We see in the Kuiper Belt clear evidence that the orbits have changed and the planets migrated. Our solar system – when it formed – was probably more compact, smaller than it is now. Neptune may be 30 AUs, the distance between the sun and the earth now, but it didn’t form 30 AUs away. [AU is an astronomical unit that is equal to the average distance between the sun and the earth.]

Before, we didn’t have a good explanation for where short-term comets come from, now we know they come from this area in the Kuiper belt.

JL: Currently, scientists theorise that stars form in clusters with other stars. Before the discovery of the Kuiper Belt it was puzzling to scientists that our sun did not appear to have any companion stars. But in the Kuiper Belt, there were objects with strange elliptical orbits, which only occur if there was a force that had touched them. There is also a point where there are no more objects with classical circular orbits around 50 AUs away. It suggests that a nearby passing star scattered everything, and points to the fact our sun was also formed in a cluster.

Q. Why would your discovery matter to the average person?

DJ: The question is: what is the purpose of life? If the purpose of your life is to have a job, earn money and watch TV, then our discovery has no meaning for you. But if you’re interested in exploring the world, and knowing everything about it, then it’s important.

Kids understand this; they’re curious about everything. They don’t care if they look stupid, they say: "OK I’m going to ask this question – is there a dinosaur on that thing?" They just want to know. The older people get, the less curious and more self-conscious they are. 

JL: I don’t think our discovery is useless. Most people on the street, even bankers, care about how many planets there are. I don’t know why, but if you take Pluto away, they get upset. Even the bankers.

DJ: So it’s about culture versus lack of culture. Does culture include science? I think yes. But conventionally when people talk about culture they say – oh it’s the arts, it’s dancing and painting and stuff. But it’s also science. We’re a big part of culture too. So what you need to think about is what you want from society and what you want from life.

Q. Jane, out of 48 scientists, you are the first woman to receive the Shaw Prize. How do you feel?

JL: I didn’t know, so I don’t have any feeling about that. It’s nice because it sets a precedent. In the future it should be 50/50. That’s the way the world population is. But women have a harder time in every profession, not just science. It’s a cultural thing that will get corrected with time.

DJ: People have done studies that show women are judged more harshly than men, by both genders. A resume with a male name is likely to be judged as better than an identical one with a woman’s name on top. It’s not just for women, but also for minorities or those with the wrong social background. Somehow it’s ingrained; people don’t even know they do it. It’s getting better, but too slowly.

JL: Even my mom, she always tells me that men do everything better. Even for cooking, which she and all the women in the family are great at, she still says male cooks are always better. I don’t know where she gets this idea, but she believes that men do a better job.

My world in Vietnam was very small. Children were not taught to question anything; you were punished if you did. I thought the best thing I could be was a teacher. It’s the best thing I could see a woman doing. Things changed when I moved to America and saw women doing all kinds of things. I realised you could do whatever.

Q. Why did you decide to become an astronomer?

DJ: I grew up in London. On my way back home on my bicycle, I saw several meteors go across the sky and I asked my mother what they were. She said: “Oh, they are shooting stars.” I asked her: "What are they?" She said: “Well, it’s a star that shoots.” It made me realise that I could see something, and that my mother could not know what it is. From then on, I became interested in the sky and looked more carefully.

JL: For me it was an accident. In Vietnam we didn’t have science. There was no science education in school. I didn’t get it until I came to the States in 1975. I studied physics at Stanford University, but didn’t hear of astronomy until I’d graduated and was at my first job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where they make spacecrafts like the Voyager. I saw these beautiful images of the different parts of the solar system and realised it contained so much that was still mysterious. I remember asking a friend: "Who studies these things?" And he said: "Oh, planetary scientists." And I did not know about the field before. So where do people do planetary science? There are few places in the US. So when I decided to go back to graduate school, I applied to the science department at MIT that’s how I got involved.

Q. Did your parents encourage you to learn about astronomy?

DJ: She didn’t discourage me. My parents had no education, but they didn’t stop me.

JL: Neither did my parents. They didn’t know anything. Both sets of parents did not go to college. Did you have many books at your house? We didn’t have any books at our house.

DJ: No, we didn’t have books either. Actually I didn’t even know you could buy a book, believe it or not, until I was 13. I suddenly realised you can buy a book. I thought books were only in libraries. I’d never saw a bookstore until then.

JL: We didn’t have libraries, so we only could buy them. But I couldn’t afford to buy books, so we rented them. Some people had books, and they would rent them to you for a few cents. This was back in Vietnam.

Q. Did you ever think you would be a scientist?

JL: In high school I wanted to be an astronaut. I think almost everybody wanted to be an astronaut.... I was a physicist in college and then in my first job I learned a bit about Nasa and realised that I don’t want to be an astronaut. It’s a very constraining profession. It’s not like 9-to-5 where you can do whatever you want after. it’s a long-term programme. You have to buy into everything that Nasa says, and do everything that Nasa tells you to do. It’s not like you don’t like working for this mission, you go and work for another mission. It’s a bit like the military - rigid and highly constrained, no freedom.

Q. You’re not from well-educated families. Why do you love learning?

JL: Most kids they love learning. But as they get older, things change, they get steered into different areas. Maybe our parents didn’t do any steering so that’s why we love it. My parents they did not go to college, they didn’t even go to high school. So they didn’t say anything, do this do that. So we were free to go do what we wanted.

DJ: I think I benefited from British society. Britain has this enormous history of science and technology. Scientific revolution happened in Britain; the industrial revolution happened in Britain, evolution was discovered in Britain twice, by two people at the same time. All sorts of stuff happened in Britain. So I think in British society, there’s a kind of respect for science. So somehow that helped me. In the US, there’s probably not a kind of respect like that for science at the present time.

An interesting side note. The first time I visited China, I think it was 1991. At that time, there was this big discussion on the mainland. It was: why is it that we don’t have any original ideas? Why is it that we can’t produce anything new, we just copy people?

There were all these theories. One was: maybe it's Chinese characters. Maybe Chinese characters affect the way we think. Maybe we can’t do original thinking because the characters are too complicated. All these strange ideas. Well, that’s nonsense. It’s because society was very rigid, it was a dictatorship, and before, there were the emperors and the communists, so it was a dictatorship that basically shapes the way people think.... So China, as the dictatorship is starting to fall apart, it’s starting to improve. And people think a little more openly. They’re beginning to do a little bit of scientific thinking and some of it is original.

Q. If you could meet any scientist dead or alive, who would you want to meet and why?

JL: Faraday.

DJ: Faraday was good. He was this guy that figured out all this stuff about electromagnetism, about the connection between electricity and magnetism, just with very simple equipment – bits of wire, simple battery that he built himself. Basically, you would look at his equipment and say – that’s junk. But he invented this whole field with nothing, and without formal education. He didn’t know how to describe his results using mathematics, so other people did that afterwards, but he figured out all this stuff by himself. Very very impressive. The one I would not want to meet is Newton. He was a real bastard. He was a nasty person, a very very nasty person.

JL: But he was very good.

DJ: He was good at science, but he was crazy and he was nasty.

JL: That’s true.

DJ: Vicious.

JL: Faraday worked at a bookbinder, and that’s how he read books, because he had to bind the books.

DJ: Person or scientist? Cause person I’d say Churchill.

JL: I think Benjamin Franklin would be cool. He did everything. He wasn’t a scientist, but he did experiments, simple things like the flying kite. He tried to invent things; he tried to make the stove -- cheap stove for poor people to use. He was articulate; he thought about many things, was in politics, did a bit of everything. He seems like he was a decent person in the sense that he didn’t think he was above other people, so he could communicate with all people at all levels - presidents, officials and laymen. He seemed down to earth.

But these are the people whose biographies we have read. There might be other people that are very interesting, but you didn’t know about them because there were no biographies.

DJ: [Churchill] was a good person. He has many positive things and many negative things. He’s an excellent mixture of good and not so good. Highly flawed but excellent person. He did some things fantastically well. He did things all through his life. He worked a really long time. He took over in the beginning of the second world war when he was 60-something. He was already old at the beginning of that. He was very determined, and he’s a good writer. He got the Nobel prize for writing. In terms of being a person, he’s all-around good on many different. Also a little crazy in some areas. A lot of character. Newton did not have character. He was just a bad guy.

Galileo was good too.

Q. What are you doing now?

DJ: Working on a new class of objects that we discovered in 2006. These are asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter. There are millions of objects there, and some of them we found - although they have the orbits of asteroids, they looked like comets because they lose material like comets. These new objects are probably related to the origin of the oceans, and the origin of hydrocarbons and pre-biological materials. We think they may contain ice just like comets. And that’s interesting because it may mean that water in our oceans was delivered to the earth from impacts from asteroids, and not comets as we thought. So that’s kind of a new field. The idea is to work on new things ... because after a while, lots of people come into the field, like the Kuiper Belt, and it seems like it’s not so much fun.

JL: I’ve been building instruments using laser lights to detect things, to measure things like how fast an object is moving or vibrations. Say you want to measure how fast something is moving. You can use a laser beam, illuminate the object with light and you detect the reflected light. You look for something called the Doppler Shift: it’s a phenomenon where light changes frequency when it’s reflected by a moving body. You measure the frequency of the light that goes out, and measure the frequency of the light that comes back, and if the frequency has shifted, the target has moved. You can tell which direction it moved, how fast it moved.

Q. What are you going to do with the US$1 million prize money [which will be split between the two]?

JL: Buy a bird feeder. It’s true! That was my first thought: I can buy another bird feeder. I like birds, I like animals. I recently bought my first bird feeder, and it instantly became a constant source of entertainment. If you’re bored, you go look at the bird feeder, because there’s always something happening. Hawks come by, all sorts of animals come by and you see Darwinism in action. You see the big birds try to fight of the small birds and then the hawk comes because he sees all the birds hanging around and he wants his food. So it’s a whole food cycle. 

DJ: Get out of debt. We have huge debt from living in Los Angeles.

Note: This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity.