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University of Hawaiʻi Astronomer Receives American Astronomical Society's Highest Award

8 January 2019


Dr. Ann Boesgaard
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Picture of Ann Merchant Boesgaard, 2019 Russell Prize Winner

Dr. Ann Merchant Boesgaard, Professor of Astronomy, Emerita at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, recipient of the American Astronomical Society's 2019 Henry Norris Russell Lectureship.

High Res JPG

Ann Merchant Boesgaard, Professor of Astronomy, Emerita at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), has been awarded the 2019 Henry Norris Russell Lectureship by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). The Russell Prize is the AAS' highest award, and is bestowed annually on the basis of a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research.

The AAS, the major organization of professional astronomers in North America, named the recipients of its 2019 prizes at its 233rd semiannual meeting in Seattle, Washington. AAS President Megan Donahue (Michigan State University) announced them during a brief ceremony on the morning of Tuesday, January 8th.

The citation for Ann's award recognizes her pioneering, sustained work in using light-element abundances to test Big Bang nucleosynthesis and to probe stellar structure and stellar evolution.

"My first paper was published in The Astrophysical Journal in 1965, 54 years ago. There were many long nights at telescopes, in the dark, freezing cold atop Mount Hamilton, Mount Wilson, and mostly Maunakea. This recognition of my research career is thrilling," said Dr. Boesgaard. In the past few decades, her work has made extensive use of the UH 2.2-m telescope, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, and W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea.

The award includes an engraved certificate, a monetary prize, an invitation to deliver a lecture dealing with a broad astronomical field at a future AAS meeting, and publication of the lecture in a Society journal. Dr. Boesgaard will deliver her prize lecture at the next winter meeting of the AAS, to be held January 2020, in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.

"Ann Boesgaard has devoted her career to the study of the light elements - lithium, beryllium and boron - in the atmospheres of stars, and to what that can tell us not only about the structure and evolution of stars but also about the formative stages of the entire Universe. We are delighted that she is receiving this well-deserved recognition for her lifetime achievements," said Robert McLaren, IfA Interim Director.

Dr. Boesgaard received her PhD in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley, under George Herbig, who later became a professor at the IfA. She was recruited to the IfA by its first Director, John Jefferies, in 1967, and became one of the first professors in the newly formed department.

"What a fine and deserved recognition for the dedication and fine contributions she has made to astronomy over all these years. I recall the first time I heard her talking about the light elements, and I was proud to think that our fledgling operation in Hawaii was going to have Ann on its staff," said Jefferies upon hearing of the award.

Ann has authored over 250 publications on the subject of chemical abundances in stars. Measuring the fractions of specific atoms in nearby stars holds the answers to many fundamental questions about the universe.

"Our Sun is about 5 billion years old, and is 98% hydrogen and helium. Other chemical elements — like carbon and oxygen — were forged in stars over the past 14 billion years. The amount of those elements in other stars in the Milky Way help us learn about the origin and evolution of stars and the chemical evolution of our Galaxy. Other light elements such as lithium and beryllium are easily destroyed by nuclear fusion in the insides of stars. What remains on a star's surface provides crucial information about its unobservable interior," explained Dr. Boesgaard.

Sidney Wolff, former Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), and former IfA interim director, reacted to news of the award. "I am very pleased that Ann’s career-long commitment to the analysis of the light elements has been recognized with this prestigious award. Her research demonstrates clearly that the abundances of lithium, beryllium, and boron can be used as extremely valuable diagnostics of a broad array of astrophysical processes, such as mixing and rotation in stars, which in turn constrain models of stellar structure, to primordial nucleosynthesis."

In addition to the Russell Lectureship, Dr. Boesgaard has received a number of other awards, including a honorary Doctor of Science in 1981 from Mount Holyoke College, a NATO Senior Science Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Professorship, a Smithsonian Fellowship, the Medal of the College de France, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 1990 Muhlmann Prize of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. She has served on a variety of national and international astronomy advisory committees and boards, including the AAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP), where she also served as President. A main-belt asteroid, 7084 Boesgaard, was named in her honor in 1998.

Although Ann has officially retired from the IfA, she remains active in research and continues to advise PhD students. Her latest doctoral student successfully defended his dissertation just one month before the award was announced.

Ann Boesgaard on Sno-Cat on Maunakea in 1971
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Dr. Ann Boesgaard (left) and two observing assistants returning to Hale Pohaku after a night of observing with the UH 2.2-m telescope on Maunakea, in January 1971.

Credit: Alan Stockton

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakalā and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi.