University of California Observatories/Lick Observatory | University of California, Santa Cruz | Santa Cruz, California
For extraordinary advances in our knowledge of the properties of distant galaxies, dark matter, large scale structure of the Universe, and black holes in galactic nuclei; and for innovative leadership in the development of astronomical facilities.
2009 Bower Science Award Theme: The Cosmos
From creating one of the first comprehensive models of how the universe formed, to her work suggesting there is a massive black hole at the center of all galaxies, Sandra Faber has led a revolution in understanding the structure of the universe. She was an early proponent of incorporating dark matter into galactic models; she has determined new ways to identify age, size and distance of galaxies; and she helped discover the "Great Attractor," a gravitational anomaly in the universe. She has also shown innovative leadership in the development of astronomical facilities.
Sandra Faber first realized she wanted to study the nature of the universe when she filled out her Swarthmore application essay on what she would do with her college education. She identified that one could either do this through studying the largest structures in the universe like stars and galaxies, or through the smallest, such as fundamental particles. She chose the former, and learned to use a telescope while an undergraduate at Swarthmore. She earned her B.A. with high honors in physics in 1966, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard in 1972 before joining the Lick Observatory, UC Santa Cruz, where she has observed and taught ever since.
Her earliest work was in studying elliptical galaxies. She was the first to spot quantifiable relationships between such things as the colors of their spectra, their luminosity, the speed of their stars, and their size. She identified many such correlations over the years, and such "scaling laws" offer clues to how these galaxies form, a subject which intrigues Faber to this day. Turning her attention to galaxy formation, Faber helped galvanize the astronomical community to incorporate dark matter into their models, a concept that previously had not held much legitimacy. Working with other researchers, Faber went on to develop the first comprehensive model of universe formation, known as the cold dark matter model, in which her team described how dark matter would have affected and driven galaxy evolution from the Big Bang until today. Faber gained even more recognition when she joined with a now-famous group of researchers known as the Seven Samurai. Together, the group determined a new technique to measure the distance to galaxies. They discovered the galaxies were not moving with the consistent speeds previously predicted, but instead, gravity from the large mass concentrations affected the local expansion of the universe, causing some areas to speed up and others to slow down. This phenomenon opened up new doors to measure the total mass density of the universe, crucial information in determining whether the universe will expand forever or someday collapse in on itself.
In addition to a lifetime of seminal research breakthroughs, Faber has made great contributions to the astronomy community by helping with the construction of both the Keck Telescope and the first Wide Field Planetary Camera [WFPC] for the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1990 she worked diagnosing and planning refurbishment for the flawed WFPC, a stretch she describes as one of the most exhilarating in her career. She recently spearheaded the construction of one of the most impressive tools in modern cosmology, Deimos, an extragalactic spectrograph that can image some hundred galaxies at a single time.
Faber continues to do active research, focusing on the formation and evolution of galaxies and other structure in the universe, such as searching for black holes at the center of galaxies. Among other honors, she has won Harvard's Bok Prize, the Heineman Prize, and the Médaille de l'Institute d'Astrophysique de Paris. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Information as of April 2009