Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. David Minton (Conversations at the DPS, profile 3)


Dr. David Minton has made a career chasing the solar system's earliest rocks. Provided Image, captured at Racetrack Playa, above Death Valley in 2006

Not everyone showed up at LPL fresh out of undergrad. Among us were several students who had previously studied in other fields and obtained masters degrees. Most of these were the usual suspects: geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy. However, I admit I took some interest in David Minton, who was coming to us with an Aerospace Engineering Degree. To my knowledge he was the third such student after myself and Yuan Lian (also in my class).

You might think that with an engineering background, the obvious speciality would be in spacecraft, and indeed David started out working with Peter Smith on the Phoenix Mission in the summer of 2005. But after that summer, he discovered that his passion was dynamical simulations. It is the work in which he has had a great deal of success, and he has stayed with it ever since, first in Renu Malhotra's research group and later at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. Next fall, David will take up an Assistant Professor position at Purdue in Layfayette, Indiana where he will work alongside several other researchers in a budding planetary science group founded by National Academy of Science member H. Jay Melosh.

Perhaps dynamical simulations needs some more exposition. Basically, what David does is run simulations of particles in the early solar system to see how the planets formed out of the material in the solar nebula. From this information we can say why we have the planets where we see them, and what composition we expect those planets to have. It also gives us a statistical tool which enables us to examine planet formation in general and, therefore, gives us information on what kinds of planetary systems we can expect to find around other stars.

This field is still young, and as computing power increases, the simulations that David and his colleagues can run become more and more detailed. What we see is that the solar system, early in its life was a fascinating and strange place, full of giant impacts, and migrating giant planets. In fact, it was David who found evidence of this behaviour by closely examining the distribution of rocks in the asteroid belt. It was this achievement, while he was still a grad student at LPL, which won him the Kuiper Award and set him on the course that led him to Purdue.

For me, David's interview was a chance to learn about a field about which I knew little, but whose results were vitally important to my own work. After all, if you don't know the starting value for D/H who is to say that today's value is enriched? I hope that you too enjoy hearing what he has to say about the ancient arrangements of the planets.

David's interview runs Monday, November 8 at 8:00PM EST on Astronomy.fm's Live at York U program. I'll be there able to answer questions live on the air. To ask a question, leave me a comment here or better yet, join us in our online chat room during the show over at yorkobservatory.com .

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