New Horizons in Physics Prize for Til Birnstiel

The LMU astrophysicist and ORIGINS scientist has won the award for his modeling of dust traps in protoplanetary disks, solving a long-standing puzzle in planet formation.

Image of Professor Til Birnstiel

Prof. Til Birnstiel. Image: LMU / C. Hohmann

Today, the American Breakthrough Prize Foundation announced the winners of the 2024 Breakthrough Prizes, recognizing researchers who have made important discoveries to advance human knowledge. Alongside the main prizes in the categories of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics, six New Horizons prizes are awarded to promising junior researchers. One of these coveted awards has gone to LMU astrophysicist Til Birnstiel together with Laura M. Pérez (University of Chile), Paola Pinilla (University College London), and Nienke van der Marel (Leiden Observatory) for the “prediction, discovery, and modeling of dust traps in young circumstellar disks, solving a long-standing problem in planet formation.”

Birnstiel and his team study the formation of planets and the structure and evolution of so-called protoplanetary disks, the birthplaces of planets. “More specifically, I am working on the dynamics of solid particles in these disks and how they grow toward being planets,” explains the physicist.

Dust traps are a condition for the formation of planets

Young stars and the disks surrounding them are built up from interstellar matter which contains only very small, at most micrometer-sized dust particles. This small dust is the material out of which planets form. “The mechanisms that lead to growth of more than 45 orders of magnitude are still poorly understood,” says Birnstiel. To increase our understanding, he investigates how grains can grow from small to large and how they are distributed and transported in the disk. Apparently, dust traps are formed during this process. “We’re beginning to understand that these dust traps can solve several problems of planet formation all at once,” observes Birnstiel. “The traps are sites where dust can aggregate and grow, and this creates the conditions required for the formation of asteroids and ultimately planets.” Birnstiel’s work in this area has now been acknowledged.

His research group at LMU explores the fundamental processes behind these phenomena using theoretical approaches and computer simulations. The researchers analyze, for example, the formation and evolution of substructures in the disks, how planets and other processes shape the appearance of disks, and how their models can help understand the formation of our own solar system. To test his theories, Birnstiel is also involved in numerous observation programs, including ones at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio observatory in Chile. His research has garnered awards from the European Research Council (ERC) and the German Astronomical Society.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded in 2012 by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan & Mark Zuckerberg, Julia & Yuri Milner, and Anne Wojcicki and are the richest science prizes to be awarded annually. The five main prizes (one in fundamental physics, three in life sciences, and one in mathematics) each come with an award of 3 million dollars, while the prizes for early-career researchers (New Horizons Prizes in Physics and Mathematics) come with an award of 100,000 dollars each.

Press Release of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation

News of the LMU

Prof. Dr. Til Birnstiel
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich / Exzellence Cluster ORIGINS
e-mail: til.birnstiel(at)