Spergel receives MacArthur Fellowship

Oct. 23, 2001 5:29 p.m.

David Spergel, an astrophysicist whose work ranges from researching the origin of the universe to searching for Earth-like planets, has been awarded a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the fellowship recipients Wednesday. Spergel is among 23 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who will each receive $500,000 no-strings-attached grants over a five-year period. The fellowships, known informally as the "genius grants," recognize people who have "shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction" in their fields.

"From the time of his undergraduate years at Princeton, David Spergel has been an astonishingly bold and creative scholar," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "He has tackled some of the most difficult and crucial problems in astrophysics and achieved insights that continue to shape the research agenda in the field. He also has applied his tremendous energy and personal warmth to his teaching, which is greatly appreciated among undergraduates today."

Spergel, a faculty member at Princeton since 1987, is known for both the depth and breadth of his research. His work in theoretical cosmology has contributed significantly to scientists' understanding of the origin, structure and future of the universe. In particular, he helped show how small disturbances in the shape of the early universe could lead to the patterns of galaxies and open spaces seen today. He also has added greatly to the study of our own Milky Way galaxy and its surroundings. Spergel is currently studying the nature and effects of dark matter, a type of matter that is thought to account for most of the mass of the universe but which has never been observed.

Although his focus has been on theoretical research, Spergel has worked closely with experimentalists to develop astronomical instruments. He is principal theorist for NASA's Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a recently launched satellite that is measuring slight variations in the background temperature of the universe. His research helped show how this data would provide accurate determinations of the age, size, geometry, and matter and energy content of the universe.

Most recently, he proposed an innovative design for a lens that is capable of blocking light from a star so that astronomers can detect the much dimmer light reflected from planets circling the star. That work helps advance one of NASA's most important research initiatives of the last two decades: to discover and characterize planets similar to Earth in other solar systems.

"David Spergel is one of the most innovative, creative and thoughtful astrophysicists of his generation," said Scott Tremaine, chairman of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. "The breadth of his research accomplishments is matched by his enthusiasm for teaching. He has taught -- and taught well -- almost every undergraduate and graduate course in the department and is one of our most successful and sought-after research supervisors."

Spergel received an A.B. from Princeton in 1982 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1985. He spent the last academic year on sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was also a member from 1986 to 1988. He is currently associate chair of the astrophysics department.

"The MacArthur Fellowship is both a wonderful opportunity and honor," said Spergel. "The fellowship will help me juggle the challenges of research, teaching and three young children."

"I think that there is a public view that scientists -- particularly those who win awards like the MacArthur -- go off and work alone in hidden labs," Spergel continued. "This is not so. I enjoy working together with students and colleagues. For me, the fun of science is working together to solve interesting questions. Almost all of my scientific work has been collaborations with other scientists at Princeton and elsewhere. Princeton has been a very stimulating environment where I have learned so much from the students and my colleagues. Without them, I would not be able to do my research."

Three other Princeton alumni also received 2001 MacArthur Fellowships. Danielle Allen, an associate professor of classics and politics at the University of Chicago, received her undergraduate degree from Princeton in 1993. Brooks Pate, a chemist at the University of Virginia, received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1992. Geraldine Seydoux, a biologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, earned a Ph.D. in 1991.

Note to Editors: Photos of David Spergel are available at http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pictures/s-z/spergel/ . For further information about the MacArthur Fellowship and this year's winners, see the MacArthur Foundation Web site at http://www.macfound.org/index.htm .

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601