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Search for distant planets subject of public lecture

In the equation for determining whether life is extremely rare or widespread in the galaxy, a key variable is the proportion of stars that possess planets. If the percentage is high, then the number of potentially inhabitable planets must be large. But if the percentage is low, then there are very few hospitable places where life could evolve.

Until the last few years, scientists knew for certain of only one planetary system: our own. But recently astronomers have begun detecting evidence for planetary systems surrounding other stars. Geoffrey Marcy, professor of physics at San Francisco State University and adjunct professor at the University of California-Berkeley, has been one of the scientists at the forefront of this search.

Marcy will discuss his recent discoveries, including the first discovery of planets orbiting sun-like stars, at the 15th annual Bunyan Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, in Terman Auditorium at Stanford University. His talk, titled "First Reconnaissance of Planets Orbiting Other Stars," is sponsored by Stanford's astronomy program. It is free and open to the public.

The astrophysicist will describe the discovery of eight planets in the past year, findings that have generated front-page coverage in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He will explain what is known about the new planets, many of which have unexpected properties.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, Marcy also will give a technical seminar on his research titled "Detection of Extra-Solar Planets" at 4 p.m. in the Varian Physics Lecture Hall (Physics Room 101). The discussion will be geared toward a smaller, academic audience.

Marcy became interested in astronomy at age 14 when his parents gave him a telescope. He used it to map the orbital periods of Saturn and its large moon, Titan. Since that time, Marcy, 41, has gained international recognition within the astronomy community for his efforts to prove that planets exist outside Earth's solar system.

In October 1995, Marcy's research and theories culminated in his historic confirmation, along with a colleague, of the existence of a planet orbiting a sun-like star in the constellation Pegasus.

Marcy, who has been a member of the faculty at San Francisco State since 1984, earned his B.S. summa cum laude from UCLA in 1976, with a double major in physics and astronomy. At the University of California-Santa Cruz, he obtained a research assistantship in the field of stellar astrophysics and earned his master's degree in astrophysics in 1978 and his doctorate in 1982.

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By David F. Salisbury