The brown dwarfs occupy the gap between the least massive star and the most massive planet. They begin as dimly stellar in appearance and experience fusion (of at least deuterium) in their interiors. But they are never able to stabilize their luminosity or temperature and grow ever fainter and cooler with time. For that reason, they can be viewed as a constituent of baryonic “dark matter.” Indeed, we currently have a hard time directly seeing an old brown dwarf beyond 100 pc. After 20 years of searching and false starts, the first confirmed brown dwarfs were announced in 1995. This was due to a combination of increased sensitivity, better search strategies, and new means of distinguishing substellar from stellar objects. Since then, a great deal of progress has been made on the observational front. We are now in a position to say a substantial amount about actual brown dwarfs. We have a rough idea of how many of them occur as solitary objects and how many are found in binary systems. We have obtained the first glimpse of atmospheres intermediate in temperature between stars and planets, in which dust formation is a crucial process. This has led to the proposal of the first new spectral classes in several decades and the need for new diagnostics for classification and setting the temperature scale. The first hints on the substellar mass function are in hand, although all current masses depend on models. It appears that numerically, brown dwarfs may well be almost as common as stars (though they appear not to contain a dynamically interesting amount of mass).


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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