09/24/2002 07:00:00

MacArthur Foundation certifies two Caltech professors as geniuses

Two members of the California Institute of Technology faculty have been named MacArthur Fellows, a prestigious honor bestowed each year on innovators in a variety of fields and commonly known as the "genius grants."

Charles Steidel, an astronomer, and Paul Wennberg, an atmospheric scientist, are two of the 24 MacArthur Fellows announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago. Each of the 24 recipients will receive a $500,000 "no strings attached" grant over the next five years.

Steidel's expertise is cosmology, a field to which he has made numerous contributions in the ongoing attempt to understand the formation and evolution of galaxies and the development of large-scale structure in the universe. In particular, Steidel is known for the development of a technique that effectively locates early galaxies at prescribed cosmic epochs, allowing for the study of large samples of galaxies in the early universe.

Access to these large samples, which are observed primarily using the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, allows for the mapping of the distribution of the galaxies in space and for detailed observations of many individual galaxies. These are providing insights into the process of galaxy formation when the universe was only 10 to 20 percent of its current age.

Steidel says he hasn't yet decided what to do with the grant money. "I'm giving it some thought, but I'm still in the disbelief phase—it took me completely by surprise!" he said.

"The unique nature of the fellowship makes me feel like I should put a great deal of thought into coming up with a creative use for the money. It does feel a bit odd to be recognized for work that is by its nature collaborative and dependent on the hard work of many people, but at the same time I am very excited by the possibilities!"

A graduate of Princeton University and the California Institute of Technology, Steidel was a faculty member at MIT before returning to Caltech, where he is now a professor of astronomy. He is also a past recipient of fellowships from the Sloan and Packard foundations, and received a Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation in 1994. In 1997 he was presented the Helen B. Warner Prize by the American Astronomical Society for his significant early-career contributions to astronomy.

Wennberg holds joint appointments as a professor of atmospheric chemistry and a professor of environmental science and engineering. A specialist in how both natural and human processes affect the atmosphere, Wennberg is particularly interested in measuring a class of substances known as radicals and how they enter into atmospheric chemical reactions. These radicals are implicated in processes that govern the health of the ozone layer as well as the presence of greenhouse gases.

Wennberg has earned recognition in the field for developing airborne sensors to study radicals and their chemistry. One of the early scientific results from these measurements demonstrated that conventional thinking was incorrect about how ozone is destroyed in the lower stratosphere, affecting assessments of the environmental impacts of chlorofluorocarbons and stratospheric aircraft.

Wennberg said he was "blown over by the award" when he received notification. "It is a wonderful recognition of the work that I have done in association with the atmospheric scientists working on NASA's U-2 aircraft chemistry program."

"I have been pondering how I might use the funds, but have no concrete plans at the moment. It will certainly enable me to do things I wouldn't have thought possible—perhaps even take up the bassoon again! "

A graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard University, Wennberg was a research associate at Harvard before joining the Caltech faculty. In 1999 he was named recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering.