2008 Magellanic Premium

Spring General Meeting
Margaret J. Geller

The American Philosophical Society’s 2008 Magellanic Premium medal is awarded to Dr. Margaret J. Geller, Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in recognition of her pioneering observations of the universe.

Dr. Geller is a brilliant astrophysicist who studies the distribution of galaxies and matter in the universe and the processes that produce their clusterings. Almost thirty years ago she interested her colleague, Dr. John Huchra, in joining her to observe redshifts, determine distances, and produce a three dimensional map of over 10,000 galaxies. Their pioneering work, “A Slice of the Universe”, showed that the “distribution of galaxies looks like a slice through the suds in the kitchen sink.” Geller and Huchra had discovered that the universe is filled with huge, extended, relatively thin structures composed of galaxies and clusters of galaxies surrounding huge volumes devoid of galaxies. Since that paper, numerous teams have extended the observational database by orders of magnitude, and theorists have reexamined earlier ideas of the universe, but the structures discovered by Geller and colleagues remain among the largest known structures in the universe.

Dr. Geller’s visualization techniques produced striking images and captured the public’s attention. The “stick-man” image from “A Slice of the Universe” was featured prominently in The New York Times. With her MacArthur Fellowship funds, Geller studied advanced filmmaking techniques and produced six movies, some showing simulated flights through the observed galaxy distributions. Her movie, Where the Galaxies Are, produced for the Air and Space Museum, won medals in international competitions, and set a high standard for future astronomical simulations.

Dr. Margaret Geller’s work is beautifully conceived, meticulously carried out, and discussed in terms that inspire scientists and captivate the public. The medal is engraved, “Margaret J. Geller, for discoveries about the remarkable nature of galaxy distribution in the universe.”

In 1786, two years after his election to the American Philosophical Society, John Hyacinth de Magellan of London, made a gift to the American Philosophical Society of 200 guineas for a medal to be awarded “to the author of the best discovery or most useful invention relating to navigation, astronomy, or natural philosophy (mere natural history only excepted).” The medal, named the Magellanic Premium, was first awarded in 1790. It is the oldest medal recognizing scientific achievements given by a North American institution.

The selection committee consisted of chairman Charles P. Slichter, Research Professor of Physics and Center for Advanced Study Professor of Physics and Chemistry Emeritus at the University of Illinois; Nicolaas Bloembergen, Gerhard Gade University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University; Leo P. Kadanoff, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Physics and Mathematics Emeritus at the University of Chicago; and Vera C. Rubin, Staff Astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.