Eminent Dutch Astronomer to Give April 20 Aaronson Memorial Lecture

April 2, 2001

Astronomer Ewine van Dishoeck -- winner of the $1.2 million 2000 Spinoza Award, considered the Dutch "Nobel Prize" --- will give the 2001 Marc Aaronson Memorial Lecture Friday, April 20 at the University of Arizona Steward Observatory.

Van Dishoeck's lecture, "From Molecules to Planets: The Realm of Astrochemistry" will be at 7 p.m. in the Steward Observatory Lecture Hall (Room N210). It is free and open to the public.

Van Dishoeck is professor of astronomy at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She has been involved in molecular astrophysics - a young discipline - since the early 1980s. She studies the birth and death of stars, making use of both astrophysics and chemistry. It is this combination of disciplines which makes her research unique and has allowed her to gain a new understanding of the life cycle of stars.

"We are honoring her for her comprehensive attack on the problem of chemical evolution of star-forming regions," wrote Aaronson lecture committee members. They include UA astronomer Ed Olszewski (committee chairman) and Marianne Kun, widow of UA astronomer Marc Aaronson, whom this prize lectureship commemorates. "She has used millimeter/submillimeter (radio astronomy) studies, millimeter interferometric studies, satellite infrared studies, laboratory spectroscopy and radiative transfer codes to understand the chemical signatures of an evolutionary sequence of young stellar objects," the committee wrote.

In her Aaronson Lecture, Van Dishoeck will talk about how new stars like our sun continue to be born in the ultracold and tenuous clouds between the stars in our Milky Way. "These clouds consist of gases and small solid particles ("grains"), and form a unique chemical laboratory with a surprisingly rich chemistry," she said in an abstract of her talk.

"New observational facilities such as the Infrared Space Observatory and submillimeter telescopes allow astronomers to look inside these nurseries of young stars and planets for the first time. How are stars formed, and how likely is it that they will be surrounded by rocky planets like our Earth or gaseous giant planets like Jupiter? What happens to the chemical composition of the material during planet formation? Can the organic molecules, which are observed in high abundances in interstellar clouds, form the building blocks of more complex biological systems on new planetary systems?"

In her talk, Van Dishoeck will follow molecules on their journey from the tenuous interstellar clouds, to planet-forming disks around young stars, and eventually to comets and meteorites in our own solar system.

Friends and colleagues established the Marc Aaronson Memorial Lectureship and accompanying cash prize "to promote and recognize excellence in observational astronomical research." It is awarded on a regular basis to an individual (or individuals working together) "who by his or her passion for research and dedication to excellence, during the ten years preceding the award, has produced a body of work in observational astronomy which has resulted in a significant deepening of our understanding of the universe." The award is supported by an endowed fund established with private contributions and administered by the University of Arizona. Travel for the invited lecturers is supported with the help of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Marc Aaronson (1950 - 1987) was a gifted astronomer on the UA faculty, where his research focused on some of the most important problems of observational cosmology -- the cosmic distance scale, the age of the universe, the large-scale motion of matter, the distribution of invisible mass in the universe, and the evolution of stars and galaxies. He died in 1987 in an accident while observing at Kitt Peak, Ariz.

Previous Aaronson lecturers:
Robert Kirshner, Harvard University (1989); Kenneth C. Freeman, Mt. Stromlo/Siding Spring Observatories, Australia (1990); John P. Huchra, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (1992); Nicolas Z. Scoville, California Institute of Technology (1993); Wendy L. Freedman, The Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (1994); J. Anthony Tyson, Bell Laboratories / Lucent Technologies (1996); John C. Mather, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (1998); and Bohdan Paczy•ski, Princeton University (1999).

More on Van Dishoeck:

The Spinoza Award, the highest scientific honor in the Netherlands, is given for both internationally recognized excellence and ability to inspire and recruit young researchers.

Van Dishoek herself is now the focal point of a definite school of astronomy, one at the cutting edge of the scientifically exciting discipline. She has published more than 125 articles in scientific journals and has an extremely high citation score.

Her research has been the impetus for the construction of new observatories. Van Dishoeck is currently promoting plans for a new telescope in Chile to observe radiation at millimeter wavelengths (the ALMA project). She was one of the first researchers to recognize the major possibilities opened up by "millimeter astronomy".

She also is recipient of the prestigious Marie Goeppert-Mayer Award from the American Physical Society. She has worked at leading research laboratories such as those at Harvard and Caltech and she is part of a close international network.


Resources for the media