Yesterday, the American Astronomical Society sent an email announcing the 2010 winners of the society's prizes and awards. Among the winners is Anna Frebel, a former office mate of mine and an absolutely outstanding astronomer.
Anna won the 2010 Annie Jump Cannon Award, an award given annually to an outstanding young female astronomer. Annie Jump Cannon was an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory, a member of a group of women hired in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on data analysis and astronomical calculations. Cannon's work was to try and classify the spectra of stars. Cannon developed a system to classify stars that we still use today, a system of letters based on the types and strengths of lines in the spectrum. Her system has since been shown to be indicative of the temperature of the star, one of the most important pieces of information we need to know to study an individual star. Her work was published as the Henry Draper Catalog, named after an amateur astronomer whose memorial fund supported Cannon's work. Today, whenever you see news of a planet discovered around a star, and the star's name is something like "HD 209458", that's one of Cannon's stars.
Annie Jump Cannon and her female colleagues at the Harvard College Observatory were a crucial part of starting to break down gender barriers in the science of astronomy. Gender issues still plague astronomy. Although the situation is slowly improving, we astronomers are still struggling with identifying and correcting intentional and unintentional biases against women.
Anna Frebel's work is, in many ways, directly descended from Cannon's efforts. Anna works on metal-poor stars. Stars are nuclear reactors that shine due to the energy released by nuclear fusion. Over the lifetime of the Universe, this fusion, along with nuclear reactions during energetic events such as supernovae and other forms of stellar death, has been slowly converting the main products of the Big Bang (hydrogen and helium) into heavier elements, like oxygen, carbon, iron, nickel, uranium, aluminum, calcium, ytterbium, and every other of the elements on the periodic table.
Since the amount of these elements has been increasing over time, astronomers like Anna can identify old stars by looking at their spectra and finding stars with very little iron. By studying how the amounts and ratios of elements change in ever-younger stars, astronomers hope to piece together where individual elements came from, and how the early Milky Way is different from the galaxy we see today. Anna has even been able to detect the effects of radioactive decay of elements like uranium in her most metal-poor stars. This age-dating proves that the stars are as old as the galaxy itself, just like we expected!
Congratulations, Anna, on this prestigious, exciting, and well-deserved award!