Monday, October 5, 2009

An Elegant Evening for Astrophysics

On a recent beautiful summer evening, Zoe and I attended a wonderful event hosted by the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy to honor Professor Andrea Ghez with her appointment as the Leichtman & Levine Astrophysics Endowed Chair. The distinction is one of many awards bestowed upon Professor Ghez in recent years, the result of ground-breaking research contributing to a better understanding of the Milky Way’s galactic center. The endowed chair will allow Ghez more flexibility in her pursuit of her research goals.

The event took place atop the new Physics and Astronomy building in the open air 3rd floor patio. The patio is a perfect place for such receptions, with a beautiful view of the surrounding areas of campus including Powell Library. The dining tables were very well manicured, complete with name cards for all the attendees. Upon entering the patio, we were given name badges and a special card containing our table number. Our every need was anticipated as we were offered fine wine (my favorite Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was among the selections) and tasty hors d'oeuvres. As we mingled in the crowd, Professor Ghez was swamped with well wishers. We had a long, insightful chat with the department chair, Ferdinand Coroniti, who clued us in about the dynamics of leading his department into a new era, one where the department’s stature has risen to stellar heights in the past decade.

A variety of luminaries were in attendance for the cocktail reception and formal sit-down dinner – Department Chair Ferdinand Coroniti, UCLA Dean of Physical Sciences Joseph Rudnick, and even UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Of course Professor Ghez was the guest of honor and delivered a rousing acceptance talk. Ghez has an inordinate ability to communicate complex scientific subjects to the masses. If there is a short-list of candidates who could possibly fill the shoes of the late Carl Sagan in bringing astronomy to the public, Dr. Ghez has got to be a top choice.

After the excellent dinner, Zoe and I were able to greet Dr. Ghez at last. Gracious and humble as always, she accepted our felicitations. Having already won the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and election to the National Academy of Sciences, I mentioned to her that the limit of the number of feathers in her hat is approaching infinity (a very small math joke).

Next to my primary area of interest, gravitational wave astrophysics, I am most interested in following the progress of the UCLA Galactic Center Group. This dynamic group of researchers led by Dr. Ghez is, in my opinion, destined to do great things. Do I hear Nobel Prize in their future?

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