Astrophysics Department History up through the 1970s
The Princeton Companion, a compendium of historical documents about
Princeton University, gives a Princeton University Press Archive. a history of the
department through the 1970s.
Astrophysics Department History since the late 1970s
In 1979, Lyman Spitzer stepped down as chair after over three decades as the head of the department. Jeremiah P. Ostriker took over and led the department until 1995, when he became Provost of the University. After brief terms by Ed Turner and Bruce Draine, Scott Tremaine held the position for almost a decade before leaving for a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, and the current chair is David Spergel. Martin Schwarzchild and Lyman Spitzer remained active in their retirement. Schwarzchild developed his novel modeling techniques for elliptical galaxies. Spitzer watched the Hubble Space Telescope first suffer from defects and then flourish after its dramatic repair. Schwarzschild and Spitzer passed away within 10 days of each other in 1997.
The late 1970s and 1980s were marked by a significant expansion of the department, during which time the number of faculty increased to roughly a dozen, many of them having come first through the "farm team" of a position at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study. The 1980s were marked by intensive work on the physics of gravitationally bound stellar systems, and by the 1990s, astrophysicists in the department became increasingly interested in problems in computational astrophysics, starting with Jeremiah Ostriker with work on cosmological simulations, and continuing to the present with Jim Stone, Anatoly Spitkovsky, Adam Burrows and others studying accretion disks, shocks, supernovae, and stellar atmospheres. One decisive breakthrough in this period was Bohdan Paczynski's 1986 hypothesis that gamma-ray bursts were cosmological, and his successful pursuit of this hypothesis until it is now a widely accepted fact.
The 1980s also was a time of substantial new initiatives in observational astrophysics. Princeton University became a partner in the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), and currently holds a 16% share in the ARC's 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in Southern New Mexico. More significantly, under the leadership of Jim Gunn, Jerry Ostriker, Jill Knapp, and Robert Lupton, Princeton is a major partner in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a 2.5-m wide-field telescope at Apache Point which saw first light in 1998, and will continue operations at least through 2014. Princeton astronomers built the imaging camera, designed the telescope, and wrote much of the image-processing software. Discoveries led by Princeton astronomers with this survey (often using the 3.5-meter for follow-up) included the most distant quasars known at z~6 and evidence for reionization of the universe in their spectra, the first field brown dwarfs with surface temperatures below 1000K, and the segregation of asteroid families by color. Much of Princeton's observational effort has been defined by large-scale surveys of the sky. The late Bohdan Paczynski led a series of ever-more-ambitious surveys at Las Campanas to discover thousands of gravitationally microlensed stars in the Magellanic Clouds and the Galactic Bulge, data that also yielded new insights into Galactic structure and variable stars. David Spergel worked with colleagues in the physics department (Lyman Page, Norm Jarosik, and the late David Wilkinson) on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which is making exquisitely precise measurements of the fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background. The first summary paper of this survey (Spergel et al. 2003), describing the implications for cosmology, is now the most cited paper in the history of astronomy. Lupton and Spergel are now working with Fowler, Page, and Staggs on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, which is now measuring these fluctuations on smaller scales.
In addition, Princeton astronomers are heavily involved in the planning of the next generation of surveys, with the 8.2-m Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile. The department has increasingly become involved in collaborations with other departments in the University. There are strong ties with the Physics Department, especially with the Gravity Group, in work on theoretical cosmology, computational astrophysics, and measurements of the CMB. We collaborate with faculty in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Operations Research and Financial Engineering on spacecraft and instrument design for studies of extrasolar planets. This reflects a growing interest in the department in studies of extrasolar planets and astrobiology, leading naturally to collaborations with the Geosciences and Molecular Biology departments. And we have four faculty members with joint appointments in the Woodrow Wilson School (Chris Chyba), the Department of Physics (Jo Dunkley), the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (Matthew Kunz), and the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics (Jim Stone). Hand in hand with the increase in the faculty, the postdoctoral program has also grown, from a handful of researchers in the early 1990's to of order 20 now. These postdocs go on to some of the most prestigious faculty positions in the country.
The Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton has been
fortunate enough to be home to some truly great astronomers.