Berkeley astrophysicist Gibor Basri interprets the stars

In the eyes of astrophysicist Gibor Basri, one doesn’t need a spaceship to travel to the stars. All you have to do is look.

“Starlight comes to me, and I interpret it,” says Basri, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. “It’s almost like being there.”

For thousands of years, our understanding of space has been marked by remarkable imaginative leaps. Despite limited tools, astrophysicists have, over the course of human history, conceived of – and then proved the existence of – a cosmic world that borders on implausible: fiery stars that grow and redden with age, black holes that deform space time, far-flung planets and hidden worlds, space travel – the list goes on.

Perhaps it is no surprise then, that Basri has had a lifelong love of science fiction – a genre in which no possibility is too far-fetched.

Born in 1951 at the cusp of a golden age of astronomy, Basri is now one of the most decorated researchers in his field. But that path was far from assured. Raised in Fort Collins, Colorado, he remembers doing a report on astronomy in eighth grade and coming away unimpressed by the career prospects afforded to an astronomer.

“I concluded it wasn’t a very good career,” he recalls. “But everybody’s an astronomer when they’re a kid. You see the moon and the stars, and you wonder about it.”

And so Basri found himself influenced by the clear, dark Colorado skies of his youth. Although he was never much of an amateur astronomer, he was encouraged by his father, a physicist, to ask questions about the world above. Soon, Basri found himself at Stanford, trying to apply physics to the cosmos.

It was there that he became interested in the research of star formation, a subject that, during his time at Stanford and as a grad student at Cal, had become a hot topic in the field.

“We always wanted to know how the Earth was formed, how the sun was formed, and it became possible to get some of those answers,” Basri says.

He came at the problem from the angle of stellar magnetic activity. At the time, there was some debate about whether what astrophysicists were observing around young stars was stellar magnetic activity or the result of things crashing into the star. Basri dove into the research, and over time, he and other scientists began building up a picture of how stars form.

Astrophysicist Dr. Gibor Basri at his home on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Berkeley, Calif.(Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

By 1987, astrophysicists were realizing that young stars must have a disc of gas and dust around them. In 1990, the Hubble space telescope was launched into low orbit, and the scientific observations were confirmed.

“I wrote papers on discs around stars before we had seen any. Now Hubble had seen them,” Basri said. “That’s great. Something you claim is there based on indirect arguments – and now there it is.”

The discovery also provided a basis of understanding how the Earth and stars were formed, a question as old as time. There is a stereotype of scientists as rigid, data-driven and skeptical. But to Basri, astrophysicists are ultimately driven by the same desire that we all feel when we look to the stars and wonder, how did we get here?

That question, in some ways, has been a driving force in his career, which has included many of the most notable achievements in astrophysics. In 1995, he became the first to confirm the existence of brown dwarf stars. In 2001, he was a co-investigator on the Kepler mission, NASA’s first planet hunting effort. And in the 2000s, he was heavily involved in the debate about whether Pluto should be considered a planet or not (he’s still on Pluto’s side).

But although his research has pushed the limits of human understanding, in Basri’s view, the work is not the result of imaginative leaps, but rather the step-by-step progress that defines science.

“Science is mostly or almost entirely incremental,” Basri says. “Occasionally, there are these huge leaps that come out of nowhere, but that’s very rare.”

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In 2015, Basri moved toward semi-retirement. He’s now reading science fiction, trying to learn Italian and refurbishing a house in Europe. He’s okay with science moving forward without him for now.

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But he’s still looking to leave a mark. One of his ongoing efforts is working to improve diversity in STEM, i.e., science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. It’s a long-standing problem and one he hopes to solve by having mentors bring people into the field so that eventually, he hopes, they will become University of California professors. He’s seen progress, but he worries that the tide may be shifting in America, especially given developments like the end of affirmative action.

Basri’s career has been about explaining the fundamental magic of the universe. His goal now is to ensure that the best, most diverse and well-qualified group of people continue that work into the future.

“For thousands of years, (people) looked at the sky. They had some explanations, but they weren’t getting very far with that,” Basri said. “Sixty to 70 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are living now. We’re in a golden age. But how long will the golden age last? I don’t know.”

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