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  Don Burnett  

Don Burnett
Principal Investigator and Lead Scientist

View Don's Resume


The following interview occurred between Don Burnett, Principal Investigator and Lead Scientist, California Institute of Technology, and Senior Associate Alice Krueger, Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory:

A.K. How did you come up with the idea for this mission?

D.B. I have been interested in the chemical composition of the solar system for years. It has always fascinated me. I sort of grew up with the problem. I followed the literature and watched the sources of information ebb and flow. I have a strong desire to make an improvement in what is known.

A.K. What new science understanding will this mission provide? Why is this important?

D.B. We all assume that the sun and the planets formed from the same cloud of gas and dust. But the sun and planets are very different, and all the planets are different from one another. Why? Many things must have happened within this cloud of gas and dust to create all this diversity. A major clue is the differences in what the sun is made of, and the similar differences among planetary materials (what technically is referred to as "chemical and isotopic compositions"). A simple example: the sun is a ball of gas; the Earth is a rock. This is a big compositional difference. If it had been real cold when the Earth formed, many of volatile materials in the sun would have been retained, so it was hot when the Earth formed, and most materials less volatile than rock were lost. So, comparing differences in what the sun and the Earth are made of, yields interesting conclusions. What Genesis does is measure what the sun is made of, one half of the many important comparisons like this one.

A.K. What will be the greatest benefit from this mission?

D.B. The direct benefit will be to scientists to help understand the way our solar system formed: what the input materials were, what events took place to form planetary materials, and what processes took place during these events. This is an example of fundamental research. We won’t make any direct changes in most people’s lives, but greater understanding of our origins should make everyone’s life more satisfying. This is one aspect of being part of an "advanced society."

A.K. What is the most fascinating thing about this mission?

D.B. I have been actively studying this for 14 years, thinking about it, planning for it. Now we have 19 specific studies that we want to do, and all are important. I’m fairly greedy right now. I want them all. I can’t predict what will be most fascinating when the information comes in nine years from now. But I don’t need to wait that long for satisfaction. The day-to-day activities of the mission are interesting to me.

A.K. What is the riskiest part of the mission?

D.B. Bringing back a sample robotically is the riskiest part. The Soviets did it in 1973, but they didn’t leave us any heritage. But it was done way back then and then forgotten about, so we cannot build on their technology.

A.K. What will the science of space be like in 20 years? How will this mission contribute?

D.B. We will have a much broader view of the solar system. Now we are restricted to knowing about material that represents Earth at 1 AU and meteorites bringing material from the asteroid belt at 3 AU. This mission will nail down one corner of the big picture; it will bring back a piece of the sun. Then the Stardust mission will bring back samples from a comet. We will know a lot more about differences among planetary objects. We will be able to see whether our present view of the solar system is too narrow or whether we can generalize. We will have a better understanding of both chemistry and processes.

A.K. What else do you do at CIT?

D.B. I am a professor. I teach courses. I just got done giving a final exam in "Introduction to Planetary Science," so I have 27 finals to grade over the weekend [Spring semester, 1998]. Two out of every three quarters I am teaching a course. I teach at many levels. This course was for sophomores [in college]. I also teach courses in upper division and for graduate students.

A.K. What is your everyday work life like?

D.B. I am a morning person, so I am usually in here by 7 a.m. I start dragging by later in the afternoon, and I am usually not awake after 9 or 10 at night. When I get to my office, I read and write e-mails. Our Genesis Science Team is working hard in Phase B to select materials. Later on we will be developing the analytical instruments [to examine the returned samples of solar wind]. There is also a lot of project level e-mail.

I have some research going in addition to the Genesis project. I have a post doc and a grad student. I talk with each about half an hour a day. A few weeks ago I was writing a proposal for continued funding for their work. That took about two weeks. The emphasis and priorities fluctuate in my work. Except for Genesis, the rest of my life has been small and orderly.

A.K. Are there any barriers to your work?

D.B. There are not enough hours in the day. There is so much to be done. Science is basically infinite. Once you get into research it always expands; it never converges. When you answer one question, it raises six more.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think searching for funding is a barrier. I don’t mind writing proposals. It is important to see what I have done, what I am working on, and where do I go from here.

A.K. What kind of career path and education led you to become a scientist?

D.B. It was in grade 5 or 6. I never once gave a thought to what I wanted to be. I made minor choices here and there.

In grade 6 we got to use science kits. The only one I remember is a needle on a cork. You rubbed it with a magnet and made it float.

I wasn’t so much interested in the science labs. The inherent material in science was so interesting. Sometimes the experiments were frustrating. I like the accomplishment of saying "So THAT’s how it works!" That satisfaction was easy to come by in science for me.

A.K. What has been the most surprising thing about your education and career history?

D.B. Nothing. I have been real lucky in that regard. I said "Gee, I want to go this way or do that thing," and it happened. It was partly luck and partly my age. There was more opportunity to do what I do back then. What I wanted to do was considered of value. Now it is hard to get jobs in science unless you are into computers. There are few fields where it is easy to get a job.

A.K. What is your family life like?

D.B. My wife and I have three sons who are all grown. They are spread out all over California. One is an engineer working on radar design. One is just getting his certificate to be a special education teacher. My third son was a whiz kid at math. Then he went into theater arts and works at Dream Works.

A.K. What are your leisure time activities?

D.B. I have lots. We go every weekend to our cabin in the San Bernadino mountains. The weather there is beautiful. I use my laptop while watching birds.

We have broad interests. We like history and listen to books on tape on the two-hour drive to the cabin. I like folk music and like to garden.

There is never enough time. I will have no problem with retirement; I will have lots of things to do. CIT asked me for a statement, so I told them I would retire at 70. But I will keep working no matter who pays me, and that is all right with them.

A.K. Any advice for young scientists?

D.B. You need to do something that you are very very interested in. You can always get a job if you are very very good at it, so pick something you’ll like and study it until you are very good.

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Curator: Aimee Meyer
Updated: November 2009

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