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04/30/2003 07:00:00

Caltech astrophysicist Shrinivas Kulkarni electedto National Academy of Sciences

Shrinivas Kulkarni, who is the MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Kulkarni is a leading authority on exotic astrophysical phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts, brown dwarfs, and millisecond pulsars, and has been associated with many of the major advances in understanding the universe that have been made over the last decade.

In 1982, along with Don Backer of UC Berkeley, Kulkarni discovered the first millisecond pulsar. These pulsars have turned out to be very precise natural clocks with many applications. In 1995, Kulkarni led a group that discovered the first "brown dwarf." Hypothesized since the sixties, a brown dwarf is a "failed star," with a mass too low to shine brightly like our own sun but too high for it to be classified as a planet. Brown dwarfs are now considered to be quite abundant. In 1997, he and his colleagues demonstrated that gamma-ray bursts were extragalactic in origin, and Kulkarni has led many investigations since then that have further uncovered the nature of the phenomenon.

Kulkarni has been a prime mover in the quest to improve the resolution of optical instruments with a technique known as "interferometry," which exploits the wave nature of light in such a way that light from two or more mirrors can be combined for a superior image. Working in collaboration with Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers, his research team used the testbed interferometer at Caltech's Palomar Observatory in 2000 to obtain the most precise distance to date for a Cepheid variable, a type of regularly pulsating star that has long been a standard of reference in the "cosmic yardstick" used to gauge astronomical distances.

Kulkarni is heavily involved in the Keck Interferometer and is the interdisciplinary scientist for NASA's ambitious Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), which is expected to be launched in 2009. With SIM, astronomers hope to measure and catalog planets around nearby stars.

A Pasadena resident, Kulkarni earned his master's degree in 1978 from the Indian Institute of Technology and his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1983. He came to Caltech in 1985 as a research fellow, and received a faculty appointment in 1987. He is also a former Presidential Young Investigator and Sloan Research Fellow, and winner of the Waterman Prize.

Kulkarni joins 71 other prominent scientists this year as new members, bringing the total active membership to 1,922. Caltech currently has 67 other faculty members and three trustees who are members of the academy.

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631