Press Release

American Astronomical Society Names Recipients of 2020 Awards And Prizes

By SpaceRef Editor
January 21, 2020
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At its 235th semiannual meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii (, the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the major organization of professional astronomers in North America, named the recipients of its 2020 prizes for outstanding achievements in scientific research, education, scholarly writing, and service to the astronomical community. The AAS Board of Trustees approved the recommendations of the Society’s prize committees on Thursday, 9 January.

The 2020 Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, celebrating a career of eminence in astronomical research, goes to Scott Tremaine (Institute for Advanced Study) for his lifelong contributions to our understanding of the dynamics of natural cosmic systems on scales ranging from comets to clusters of galaxies, and for his mentoring of junior colleagues and leadership of major astronomical research institutions.

The Dannie Heineman Prize for outstanding mid-career work in astrophysics is given jointly by the AAS and the American Institute of Physics. For 2020 the prize goes to Christopher Kochanek (Ohio State University) for combining observations and theory to make outstanding contributions in topics ranging from the use of gravitational lenses for studies of dark matter halos and quasar accretion disks, to the lives and deaths of massive stars and the evolution of stellar populations in galaxies and quasars.

Kochanek is also the co-recipient, with Krzysztof Stanek (Ohio State University), of the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize, which recognizes outstanding research of an exceptionally creative character. They are being cited for their innovative contributions to time-domain astronomy and, in particular, their leadership in the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN), a worldwide network of telescopes that monitors transients over the entire sky, opening new avenues for astronomical discovery.

The Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, for outstanding early career achievement in observational astronomical research, goes to Emily Levesque (University of Washington) for her breakthrough studies of massive stars and their explosive end states. Through observations of the host galaxy environments of long-duration gamma-ray bursts she has provided new insights into the stellar populations that create these extremely energetic events. She led the development of a new temperature scale for red supergiants that better matches stellar evolution theory and has been widely adopted. She has also led important studies of circumstellar ejecta and the binary fraction of massive stars and identified a new class of star in the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies. This is not Levesque’s first AAS prize; in 2014 she received the Annie Jump Cannon Award for outstanding research and promise for future research.

Smadar Naoz (University of California, Los Angeles) gets the 2020 Helen B. Warner Prize for her many early career contributions to theoretical astrophysics, especially her influential and creative studies in cosmology and dynamics. She has provided important insights into the behavior of radiation and matter after cosmological recombination and the formation of the first stars, and she has devised compelling explanations of the unexpected orbital properties of hot Jupiters. Her work on the dynamics of hierarchical triple systems has been applied to many other fields of astronomy, including stars and binary supermassive black holes, giving us crucial insights into the events detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). Like Levesque, Naoz was earlier honored with the Annie Jump Cannon Award, in 2015.

The AAS Education Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to the education of the public, students, and/or the next generation of professional astronomers. The latest recipient is Deborah Byrd ( for her contributions to the Texas Star Party, the University of Texas McDonald Observatory’s StarDate radio program and magazine, and the Earth & Sky radio program and website, all of which epitomize her advocacy for science and her lifetime of service in educating and inspiring the public with the wonders and beauty of astronomy.

The George Van Biesbroeck Prize honors a living individual for long-term extraordinary or unselfish service to astronomy, often beyond the requirements of their paid position. Roc Cutri (Caltech/IPAC) is the 2020 recipient for his long-standing and selfless service and support for ground- and space-based infrared astronomy, including his leadership, development, and management of public data products such as those from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which have enabled many important discoveries across all fields of astronomy.

Thomas Burbine (Mount Holyoke College) gets the 2020 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award for his undergraduate textbook “Asteroids: Astronomical and Geological Bodies” (Cambridge University Press, 2017), a comprehensive interdisciplinary introduction to minor planets, their meteorite fragments, and their comet and trans-Neptunian object cousins. Burbine offers clear explanations, well-chosen photographs and diagrams, homework problems with worked-out examples, and extensive references for deeper study of every topic he covers. Aptly timed for the current golden age of asteroid research, this book equips readers to understand small solar system bodies from multiple scientific perspectives — as celestial objects, geological worlds, potential founts of natural resources, existential threats to civilization, and priority targets for spacecraft reconnaissance.

The Chambliss Amateur Achievement Award goes to Dennis Conti (American Association of Variable Star Observers & Howard Astronomical League) for his outstanding observational, computational, and educational contributions to exoplanet studies. As a professional computer scientist and amateur astronomer, he leads a time-series photometry subgroup for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Follow-up Observing Program, and his efforts in that capacity have vastly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire team. Conti has also contributed to the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) project and has developed valuable tutorials, multiple widely used image-reduction software packages, and other resources for amateur exoplanet observers.

Special Honors at the 235th AAS Meeting

With support from the Kavli Foundation, the Society’s Vice-Presidents name a special invited lecturer to kick off each AAS meeting with a presentation on recent research of great importance. Earlier this month, the Fred Kavli Plenary Lecture, “Black Holes Snacking on Stars: A Systematic Exploration of Transients in Galaxy Nuclei,” was given by Suvi Gezari (University of Maryland), a world leader in the study of transient phenomena in astronomy. She is particularly well known for her discovery and analysis of tidal disruption events (TDEs), flares of light emitted when stars are torn apart by the gravitational pull of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. As she explained in her lecture, TDEs have been transformed from a theoretical concept to an observational reality, with large numbers of these events now being discovered and used to explore the nature and growth of supermassive black holes and their galactic environments.

The closing plenary lecture at AAS 235 in Honolulu was presented by Sheperd S. Doeleman (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian), recipient of the Lancelot M. Berkeley – New York Community Trust Prize for highly meritorious work in advancing the science of astronomy. The annual Berkeley prize winner is chosen by the three AAS Vice-Presidents, in consultation with the Editor in Chief of the AAS journals, to honor highly significant research published within the preceding 12 months. Doeleman’s prize lecture, “The Event Horizon Telescope: Imaging a Black Hole,” described how he led a huge international collaboration to create a planet-scale array of ground-based radio telescopes to capture an image of the close environments of the 6.5-billion-solar-mass black hole at the center of the giant galaxy Messier 87 in the Virgo cluster about 55 million light-years from Earth.

AAS Division Prizes

Most of the AAS’s six subject-specific divisions also award prizes, and two of them — the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) and Laboratory Astrophysics Division (LAD) — recently announced some of their 2020 awardees.

HAD gave its LeRoy E. Doggett Prize, which recognizes significant contributions to historical astronomy through a career-long effort, to Robert W. Smith (University of Alberta). He has worked alongside astronomers and engineers to produce in-depth histories of the Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope and written numerous well-regarded books and articles. Smith gave his prize lecture, “From the Invention of Astrophysics to the Space Age: The Transformation of Astronomy 1860-1990,” in Honolulu on Sunday, 5 January.

LAD’s highest honor, the Laboratory Astrophysics Prize for significant contributions to laboratory astrophysics over an extended period of time, goes to James Truran (University of Chicago) for his theoretical work on early star formation and the nucleosynthesis history of the universe, as well as for his seminal contributions to the study of astrophysical thermonuclear explosions, nucleosynthesis, and the use of nuclear-decay chronometers to determine ages of stellar and terrestrial matter. The 2020 LAD Early Career Award goes to Sarah M. Hörst (Johns Hopkins University) for laboratory research advancing our understanding of photochemical haze formation in planetary atmospheres within our solar system and beyond. Truran and Hörst have been invited to give prize lectures at the 236th AAS meeting, to be held jointly with LAD, in Madison, Wisconsin, in June 2020.

Buchalter Cosmology Prizes

Ari Buchalter (Intersection) is an astrophysicist-turned-businessman who remains keenly interested in cosmology. In 2014 he endowed the Buchalter Cosmology Prize to reward new ideas or discoveries that have the potential to produce breakthrough advances in our understanding of the origin, structure, and evolution of the universe beyond current standard cosmological models. The latest winners of the Buchalter prizes were announced at this month’s AAS meeting: 1st prize goes to Jahed Abedi (Albert-Einstein-Institut & Leibniz Universität Hannover) and Niayesh Afshordi (University of Waterloo & Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics) for “Echoes from the Abyss: A Highly Spinning Black Hole Remnant for the Binary Neutron Star Merger GW170817” (; 2nd prize to Eugenio Bianchi (Pennsylvania State University) and his coauthors for “Quantum Gravity and Black Hole Spin in Gravitational Wave Observations: A Test of the Bekenstein-Hawking Entropy” (; and 3rd prize to Jose Beltrán Jiménez (Universidad de Salamanca) and his coauthors for “The Geometrical Trinity of Gravity” ( For details about their work, see the articles linked above and the Buchalter prize website (

Rick Fienberg
AAS Press Officer
+1 202-328-2010 x116
[email protected]

SpaceRef staff editor.