Neta Bahcall wins preeminent astronomy award, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
Jan. 11, 2024

The American Astronomical Society has awarded its highest honor to Princeton astrophysicist Neta Bahcall, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy. The Henry Norris Russell Lectureship is awarded annually for “a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research.”

“I am honored and humbled,” Bahcall said. “The honor is shared with this wonderful department, colleagues, and students, that enabled and supported the exciting scientific pathway to discovery. The amazing scientific level and dynamics in the department, and the wonderful supportive atmosphere, are matched by none.”

The society cited Bahcall “for her central contributions to determining the average density of matter in the universe and establishing the concordance model of cosmology.” The award announcement also praised her “dedication to astronomical education” and her “exemplary service to the community.” Recipients of the honor give a public astronomy lecture that the society also publishes in one of its journals.

Bahcall came to Princeton in 1971 as the first female postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics and stayed on as a research scientist until 1983, when she left to lead the Hubble Space Telescope’s science team. She returned to Princeton in 1989 as a full professor. She has served as the director of undergraduate studies for Princeton’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences since 1993.

With this announcement, Bahcall becomes half of the first husband-and-wife team to share the honor. Her husband, John Bahcall, a faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Study who also was a visiting lecturer with rank of professor at Princeton, delivered the Henry Norris Russell Lecture in 1999.

The Russell lectureship was endowed in 1946 in honor of Princeton astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton in 1897 and 1900, and who as a professor and department chair established Princeton as a leading center for theoretical astronomy, which it continues to be today.

Previous Princeton recipients of the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship include Henry Norris Russell himself, who gave the inaugural lecture in 1946; Lyman Spitzer, Ph.D. 1938 (1953); Martin Schwarzschild (1960); Jeremiah "Jerry" Ostriker (1980); James Peebles, Ph.D. 1962 (1993); John Bacall (1999); James Gunn (2005); Bohdan Paczynski (2006); and Scott Tremaine (2020).

Bahcall is the sixth woman to win the award, following in the footsteps of renowned astrophycisists Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin (1976); E. Margaret Burbidge (1984); Vera Rubin (1994); Margaret Geller, Ph.D. 1974 (2010); Sandra Faber (2011) and Ann Merchant Boesgaard (2019). She and Princeton astrophysics colleague Gillian “Jill” Knapp contributed to the 2022 Princeton University Press compilation, “The Sky is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words,” edited by David Weintraub and Virginia Trimble.