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Eric J. Chaisson ’68 Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Alumnus Recognized for His Contributions to Astrophysics Research, Teaching

Eric Chaisson in DC Photo by AAAS
Eric J. Chaisson ’68 was presented a certificate and pin as a new fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by Margaret Hamburg, chair of the AAAS board, during the organization’s annual meeting on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Astrophysicist and science educator Eric J. Chaisson ’68 has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society.

According to the AAAS, which was founded in 1848 and now has members in more than 91 countries, the fellowship program recognizes members “whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished.”

“I am very grateful for this honor,” says Chaisson, who received a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in physics in 1968 from UMass Lowell, which was then known as the Lowell Technological Institute. Chaisson now conducts research in physics and astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches natural science at Harvard University.

“Being elected a fellow of the AAAS was a complete surprise,” says the Lowell native. “It’s actually quite hard to attain it, and this year I’m the only physical scientist at Harvard who achieved it.”  

Chaisson is being recognized for his “distinguished contributions to astrophysics through research and teaching, including authoring a dozen books, among them the most widely used astronomy textbook in the nation.”

“I was a relatively latecomer to astronomy. In fact, I never actually took any course in astronomy as a student. My training is mostly in physics, at both undergrad and graduate levels. I quickly realized that astronomy was the most interesting way to practice physics – and I still feel that way,” he explains.

Trained initially in atomic physics at Lowell Tech, Chaisson earned his doctorate in astrophysics from Harvard University in 1972. Early in his tenure as associate professor at CfA, his research focused on the study of interstellar gas clouds at radio wavelengths. This work won him fellowships from the National Academy of Sciences and the Sloan Foundation, as well as Harvard’s Bok Prize and Smith-Weld Prize for original contributions to astrophysics and for literary merit, respectively. 

He has also held research and teaching positions at MIT, Wellesley College, Johns Hopkins University and Tufts University, and has written nearly 200 articles and papers, most of them published in professional journals.

Chaisson has authored a dozen books, including “Cosmic Dawn” published in 1981, which won several literary awards, including the Phi Beta Kappa Prize, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Writing Award and a National Book Award nomination for distinguished science writing. He also co-authored the textbook “Astronomy Today,” now in its ninth edition, which is the most widely used college astronomy textbook in the country.

A Great Place to Learn
“Lowell Tech was a great place to learn physics,” notes Chaisson. “The quality of teaching at the undergrad level was superb. When I gave a talk at the Physics Colloquium at UMass Lowell a few years ago, I made sure everyone in the audience knew that I was most grateful to the university and its faculty.” 

Eric Chaisson and Noureddine Melikechi Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Chaisson with Prof. Noureddine Melikechi, dean of the Kennedy College of Sciences (KCS). Chaisson and his wife, Lola, sponsored the first KCS Lecture Series on Science and Society, which was part of the “Spring into Science” celebration hosted by the college in April.
He says as a student, he was more interested in breaking ground through research than formal classroom work. 

“I was a tinkerer, an experimentalist. I wanted to learn new things that weren’t yet in the textbooks,” says Chaisson, who was featured in the Lowell Sun in 1968 and 1969 for winning modest grants from AIP during his senior year to pursue original research on electron spin resonance, quasars and carbon dioxide laser system.

“It was my early research efforts that drew the interest of the MIT Physics Department, where I spent much of my senior year, taking some courses and learning how to do research. My research, more than my grades, got me accepted into Harvard, where I’ve been mostly ever since for more than 40 years, except for five years working on the Hubble Space Telescope project in Baltimore for NASA,” says Chaisson.

While at Harvard, he also directed for 20 years the Wright Center for Science Education at Tufts University, where he was professor of physics, astronomy and education.

Chaisson is a member of numerous American and international scientific organizations, several honor societies and a host of academic, public and federal advisory committees. Recently, he returned from a sabbatical as visiting professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and distinguished fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.