Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A prized lecture

Antoinette de Vaucouleurs
Image Credit: McDonald Observatory

Today we were treated to a lecture in memory of Antoinette de Vaucouleurs, who was an astronomer here at the University of Texas at Austin for 25 years.  She is well-known for extensive work on the photometry and radial velocities of galaxies, often collaborating with her husband, astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs.  She continued working until just ten weeks before her death of bone marrow cancer in 1987.  You can read more about her life and work here.

Every year, the Department of Astronomy invites an outstanding astronomer to receive a memorial medal, and to give public and research lectures in recognition of their lifetime of achievements. Past recipients read like a who's who of BIG astronomers, including Margaret Burbidge, Vera Rubin, Don Osterbrock, Sandy Faber, Frank Shu, and Nobel Laureate John Mather, among many other equally-distinguished astronomers. 

This year, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Rashid Sunyaev, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, and Chief Scientist of the Russian Academy of Sciences Space Research Institute in Moscow.  Dr. Sunyaev is well-known for making many important predictions about the cosmic microwave background and X-ray radiation from black holes, many of which have been found to be true.  One of the things that I particularly like about much of his work is how he focuses on the observable signatures of the physical objects he is interested in.  It's one thing to hypothesize about some of the earliest structures in the Universe; it's another thing altogether to also tell us observers how we might be able to see these structures.

During today's research lecture, Dr. Sunyaev gave an overview of his most famous work on clusters of galaxies and cosmology, sprinkled with personal anecdotes about his advisor Dr. Yakov Zeldovich.  He also gave some advice to the graduate students, such as to publish results about "beautiful physics", even if the observations needed to test the prediction seem technically impossible, because we don't know how far technology may go in the next decades.  He also quipped that theorists have to be smart, but it's okay for them to be wrong, while observers don't have to be smart, but they'd better always be right.  Sunyaev was also very excited about some new results that will be coming out of the Planck satellite and telescopes at the South Pole, but he couldn't tell us details about the results yet because the findings are still being verified.

It is always a real morale booster to see talks by people who are so clearly passionate about their research and optimistic about the potential for new, exciting discoveries in the future.

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