Big Picture, continued
our planet was not so young, Koerner was born in Cincinnati to a pair
of musicianshis mom a pianist, his dad a singer. They lived in Canton,
Ohio, until he was 10, then moved to Long Beach, California. Family
lore has it that Koerner heard a violin concert at age three and declared
right then he wanted to be a violinist. Soon he started lessons in violin
and piano. Piano stuck with him. Koerner describes it as one of a few
things for which Ive had a lot of passion. (He has competed in the
International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and taken top prizes at
many regional and national-level events, including the Music Teachers
National Association, the Young Artist Competition and the Joanna Hodges
International Piano Competition.)
of course, has been another prevailing passion. As a child, Koerner
was fascinated by space travel and had a kids book on Sputnik. He also
loved to read about dinosaurs. But his father, a professor at a local
bible college, was a little worried about his sons interest in such
heretical ideas. So he gave him another book, H.M. Morriss creationist
manifesto, The Twilight of Evolution.
It was really
horrible and hard to read, Koerner recalls. Its basic point was to
say we couldnt have evolved because it violates the second law of thermodynamics.
Well, you know, I was eight. The second law of thermodynamics just didnt
grip me as a compelling argument. Not to mention, he adds, that its
just plain shoddy science.
What did intrigue
him were a new show on television called Star Trek, reports of
NASA space missions he had clipped from the newspaper and the dazzling
display of amateur telescopes he saw in the window of a store he passed
on his way to school. It turned out the owners daughter went to my
school and played cello for the orchestra, Koerner says. And so I
got to know her and this guy let me do my junior-high science-fair project
with his 12-inch in the backyard. At that point I decided I wanted to
be an astronomer.
came more easily in high school than did calculus and physics, eclipsing
astronomy as a priority. I was winning piano competitions at that point,
he says. There were just a lot more carrots. But instead of going
to a conservatory after graduation, Koerner enrolled in the bible college
where his father taught. By then, he was considering a career in the
ministry and there was the incentive of free tuition.
He didnt last
a year there. Koerner says he dropped out for reasons of intellectual
discontent, and took a long detour out of academics altogether. It
was the early 1970s, when the Jesus Movement was attracting young people
who were either turned offor felt turned awayby mainstream churches.
Koerner joined a religious group that was an offshoot of the then counterestablishment
music and California surfer-hippie defined the congregations lifestyle,
the church was theologically very traditional. Koerner left home at
18, got married and had two children, earning a living as a piano accompanist
to choral groups, giving music lessons and performing in the Long Beach
By his late
twenties, though, he was having big questions about the religion thingin
particular the conflict between mainstream scientific views and his
churchs teachings. Seeking answers, he enrolled at California State
University-Long Beach as a geology major. As he learned more about the
Earths ancient rock record, he quickly set aside the literal interpretation
of the biblical Creation story. Koerner ultimately graduated with a
degree in physics and minors in math and geology. By that point, he
was divorced and wanted to stay near his two children, so he pursued
graduate studies in the planetary-science program at Caltech. Because
of his life experiences, Koerner says, he was particularly intrigued
with this interface between culture, science and religion. And not
all of what they do [in the planetary science program] is about that.
So I kicked and screamed to do a thesis in the area of solar-system
Anneila Sargent, was doing work on circumstellar disks, which were thought
to be the incubators for new planets. Well, this was fantastic, Koerner
says, because this was basically watching it happen in the act.
Koerner (with Sargent and Steve Beckwith) was the first to demonstrate
that a gas disk was in a stable orbit around a young star, named GM
Aurigae, indicating that the disk could give rise to a new set of planets.
He and Sargent went on to confirm these findings with the observation
of dust and gas emissions around other similar-aged stars. He also detected
larger grains of dust around a young star, ostensibly coagulating to
believe that when a star forms at the core of a collapsing molecular
cloud, some of the gas and dust that contributes to the stars construction
is left orbiting the star in a flattened disk. Planets then formover
tens of millions of yearsby the gradual accumulation of smaller objects
within that disk. Within the hot, inner regions of a disk, only rock
and metals can condense. This helps explain why the planets closest
to our SunMercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are rocky and comparatively
small. Further out, ices can also condense and planets-in-the-making
can pick up even more material in their long orbits, attracting and
holding helium as they become increasingly massive. Thus, we get gas
giants like Saturn and Jupiter.
of the disk around HR 4796 and its tell-tale hole supplied another missing
link in the evolution of solar systems. In later observations, he and
Penn graduate student Zahed Wahhaj (along with two scientists from the
original research team, Dana Backman and Mike Werner) found hotter dust
well inside this hole, similar to the zodiacal dust left over from
planet construction billions of years ago in the asteroid belt of our
own solar system. Koerner likes to point out that if you were standing
on Alpha Centauri, what you would observe of our own solar system is
this zodiacal dust. Therefore, he explains, the presence of such dust
around other stars may indicate where planets have formed.
doing post-doctoral work in the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is run by
Caltech for NASA, when he got called out to Penn a couple of years ago.
When they hired me, he explains, the idea was to expand into this
area of origins of solar systems. But the senior astrophysicist who
was behind the expansion left and Koerner, now head of the physics and
astronomy departments Planetary Origins Research Group, remains the
lone faculty member in his specialty. But I still hold out hopes that
this will change, he says. And, of course, I like Penn a lot.