The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 14, 2002
October 14, 2002
VOL. 32, NO. 7


Toasting a New Nobel Laureate

Riccardo Giacconi is recognized for his work in X-ray astronomy

By Michael Purdy

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Two days after Riccardo Giacconi's research work thrust him into the international spotlight, he came back to the place through which that research is currently conducted, Johns Hopkins' Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Giacconi had an appointment to keep with a postdoctoral student in the Bloomberg Center, but he also had an impromptu event to attend: a celebration of the announcement that he was a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics.

New Nobel laureate Riccardo Giacconi, left, research professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is joined at a celebration in his honor by Brian Judd, professor emeritus.

Gathered under a huge banner in the atrium of the building, Giacconi and several dozen of his colleagues drank champagne and listened to a toast led by Timothy Heckman, professor of physics and astronomy. Giacconi also spoke briefly of the honor and of how glad he is to be a part of the Hopkins faculty and, through his position at Hopkins, to be able to help young people.

A professor at Hopkins from 1982 to 1997, Giacconi has since 1998 been a research professor, a position that allows him to continue his personal program of X-ray astronomy research while serving in the latest of a series of positions as lead administrator of groups that build large astronomical observatories.

For a large portion of his original term at Hopkins, Giacconi was director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the NASA center that operates and administers the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope from a facility on the university's Homewood campus. He is currently president of Associated Universities Inc., the corporation that administers the National Radio Astronomy Observatory for the National Science Foundation.

Speaking on behalf of the university, President William R. Brody said in a broadcast e-mail to the Hopkins community, "It goes without saying that we congratulate Dr. Giacconi for this enormous recognition of his work, and for the peerless contributions he has made to his discipline and to science. We are honored by our association with him."

The Nobel Prize committee selected Giacconi for his pioneering work in X-ray astronomy. He will receive half of the $1 million prize, and the other half will be split between Raymond Davis of the University of Pennsylvania and Masatoshi Koshiba of the University of Tokyo for their work to detect neutrinos, elusive particles that helped scientists better understand the inner workings of the sun.

Colin Norman, professor of physics and astronomy and a frequent collaborator with Giacconi, extolled the new laureate's record of sound scientific judgment and administrative leadership.

"He is always determined, with great tenacity, to get at the fundamental scientific truth," Norman said. "He and his colleagues revolutionized astrophysics using the X-ray region of the spectrum to discover fundamental properties of black holes, neutron stars, clusters of galaxies and quasars."

Holland Ford came to the Space Telescope Science Institute in 1981 at the start of Giacconi's term as director there.

"Riccardo is one of the most remarkable scientists that I have ever known in his focus and his clear perception of what the important problems are," said Ford, professor of physics and astronomy. "He has always impressed me, and anyone else in the room with us, with his ability to cut through the smoke and mirrors to see what the essential objective should be."

Jonathan Bagger, professor of physics and astronomy and new chairman of the department, said, "We're delighted that Riccardo's pioneering work has been recognized by the Nobel committee, and we look forward to continuing our long and productive relationship with him."

After his tenure as director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Giacconi served for several years as director general of the European Southern Observatory, a European astronomical consortium that built and operates several large observatories in Chile.

Warren Moos praised the observatories built during Giacconi's tenure at ESO and the new facilities currently in development under his leadership at AUI.

"In my mind, Riccardo is a major figure who's had an enormous impact on the ability of astronomers to pursue their research," said Moos, professor of physics and astronomy. "I can't underscore enough the tremendous effect that he's had on the facilities that we have."

Asked earlier in the week to describe his colleague, Heckman, who led the toast to the new Nobel laureate, said, "He's the sort of person that you think could've been, say, president of General Motors--if he hadn't been drawn into astrophysics."