WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2009 – Pioneers in the fields of astronomical telescope building, computer simulation and medical imaging will each receive the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the US government on scientists, engineers and inventors. The 2008 awards will be presented to nine researchers during a White House ceremony on Oct. 7.
Princeton University astrophysicist James Gunn, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy, was chosen for his sweeping contributions to modern stargazing, from theory to observation to gadget-building.
Gunn’s early theoretical work helped establish the current understanding of how galaxies form, as well as the properties of intergalactic space. He also suggested important observational tests to confirm the presence of dark matter in galaxies and developed plans for one of the first uses of digital camera technology for space observation.
His digital camera engineering skills were crucial both for the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project originated by him that has produced the deepest, most comprehensive map of the heavens ever made.
Gunn is regarded as one of the world’s premier designers of detection instruments. One noted Gunn creation is the 700-lb camera for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that he built in the basement of the university’s Peyton Hall over six years. The camera, one of the most complex imaging instruments ever developed for astronomy, currently is connected to the telescope at Apache Point, perched atop the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico.
The Gunn-designed camera has helped scientists using the Sloan telescope to confirm the existence of dark energy, the mysterious force believed to be causing the universe’s expansion. Scientists working on the project have made many discoveries, including detecting the most distant quasar known, and finding the most massive structure in the universe: a huge collection of galaxies called the “Great Wall.”
“Jim Gunn’s work has had a revolutionary impact on astrophysics,” said David Spergel, the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation and chair of the department of astrophysical sciences. “Jim Gunn was not only responsible for providing the vision for the Sloan survey but was also in the trenches doing an enormous amount of ‘grunt work’ that was essential for the success of the survey.”
Gunn has been building telescopes since he was a boy growing up in Texas. His father, a geophysicist who led an oil prospecting team, gave him his first astronomy book – “The Stars for Sam” – when he was 7. Within a year, he had built his first telescope with his father’s aid.
He went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Rice University and his PhD in astrophysics from the California Institute of Technology.
In 1968, Gunn joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of astrophysics. He accepted an appointment at Caltech in 1970, studying the association of quasars – mysterious, highly luminous objects – with clusters of galaxies and proving how distant they were. At that time, he became deputy principal investigator on the Wide-Field Planetary Camera for the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, he built several instruments for the 200-in. Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory.
He returned to Princeton in 1979 and has continued to follow his interests in developing better tools to help scientists understand galaxy formation and celestial structure.
Gunn has won numerous awards for his contributions to science, among them a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1983.
Retired Lawrence Livermore National Lab physicist and computational pioneer Berni Alder is widely regarded as the founder of molecular dynamics, a type of computer simulation used for studying the motions and interactions of atoms over time. His expertise includes changing kinetic molecular theory by showing that simulations can significantly affect a scientific field. In 1980, Alder was one of the pioneers who used large-scale simulations to solve quantum mechanics problems.
Alder said going into the field of molecular dynamics was “a relatively natural thing to do. The rest of the world didn’t have access to the big computers.”
Today, molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo methods are widely used across a wide range of sciences, from fundamental physics to molecular biology. But at the time of Alder’s work, those methods marked a radical change in how scientists thought about such problems.
In 1963, Alder helped found the University of California, Davis, Department of Applied Science, which offers undergraduate and graduate programs in physical sciences and engineering at UC Davis and at Livermore. Among numerous other honors, he also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Joanna Fowler, a medical imaging pioneer, is a senior chemist and director of the Radiotracer Chemistry, Instrumentation and Biological Imaging Program at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
She has been a major contributor to brain research and the study of diseases such as addiction, which she has studied using an imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET). In 1976, Fowler and her colleagues synthesized 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a radiotracer used in PET. Today, FDG is widely used in hospitals and research centers throughout the world to diagnose and study neurological and psychiatric diseases and to diagnose cancer.
“This award is both humbling and gratifying,” Fowler said. “It recognizes the importance of chemistry and imaging in advancing our knowledge of the human brain, particularly as it is affected by drugs, disease and aging.”
In her recent research, Fowler has focused on changes in the brain circuits that are disrupted during drug addiction. Some of her studies included imaging the uptake and movement of cocaine and methamphetamine in the human brain, which shed light on why these drugs are so powerfully addictive. She is also involved in PET studies to understand the action of therapeutic drugs and facilitate the introduction of new drugs into the practice of medicine.
After earning a BA in chemistry at the University of South Florida in 1964 and a PhD in chemistry at the University of Colorado in 1967, Fowler carried out postdoctoral research at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, and at Brookhaven. Fowler has spent her entire 40-year career at Brookhaven.
The National Medal of Science was created by statute in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, the medal recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. Nominees are selected by a committee of presidential appointees based on their advanced knowledge in, and contributions to, the biological, behavioral/social and physical sciences, as well as chemistry, engineering, computing and mathematics.
For more information on the National Medal of Science, including a complete list of the 2008 recipients, visit: www.nationalmedals.org
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