10/23/1997 07:00:00

Caltech Astrophysicist Charles Steidel Receives $500,000 Packard Foundation Fellowship

PASADENA—A Caltech astrophysicist who searches for the oldest and most distant structures in the universe has been named a recipient of a $500,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Charles Steidel, an associate professor of astronomy, is the newest Caltech recipient of the Packard award. He plans to use the money largely for instruments to be fitted onto the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar. These instruments will allow more efficient searches for extremely distant objects in deep space.

"My principal research interests are in the areas of the formation and evolution of galaxies, from the experimental perspective," Steidel says. "The central theme is the history of 'normal' galaxies like our Milky Way."

Nearby galaxies, as well as the stars in the Milky Way, are seen as they appeared when light left them. Thus, a galaxy one million light-years away is observed from Earth as it appeared one million years ago. But since the universe is probably 15 billion years old, astrophysicists must look at galaxies much farther away to learn about the early stages of galactic development. This is Steidel's specialty.

"Our goal for the next five years is to study galaxies, and their distribution in space, as they appeared when the universe was less than about 15 percent of its current age," Steidel says. "The hope is that this will tell us a lot about how and when the galaxies and large clusters of galaxies we see in the nearby universe came to be."

The success of the searches for these extremely distant galaxies depends on a vital combination of the Hale Telescope and the 10-meter W.M. Keck Telescopes on the island of Hawaii. The Hale can identify candidates based upon very deep images of relatively large areas of sky, and the W.M. Keck 10–meter telescopes can obtain the spectra of the very faint candidates, to allow more precise distances to be measured.

"It should be quite feasible, within the next few years, to trace the galaxies back to the point where they have not yet coalesced, and where the large-scale structures of galaxies we see today were just beginning to come together," he says.

The Fellowships in Science and Engineering were first awarded by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation of Los Altos, California, in 1988. The goals of the fellowship program are to support outstanding faculty as they build productive research programs and to help attract and retain faculty of the highest quality for our universities. With the announcement of the 20 awards for 1997, the foundation has awarded a total of 200 fellowships.

Founded in 1891, Caltech has an enrollment of some 2,000 students, and a faculty of about 280 professorial members and 284 research members. The Institute has more than 19,000 alumni. Caltech employs a staff of more than 1,700 on campus and 5,300 at JPL.

Over the years, 26 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to faculty members and alumni; and two faculty members and one alumnus have been awarded the Crafoord Prize. Forty-three Caltech faculty members and alumni have received the National Medal of Science; and eight alumni (two of whom are also trustees), two additional trustees, and one faculty member have won the National Medal of Technology.

Written by Robert Tindol