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Puerto Rican-Uruguayan astronomer Daniel Altschuler wins 2010 Gemant Award

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COLLEGE PARK, MD (May 10, 2010) -- The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is awarding its 2010 Andrew W. Gemant Awardto Daniel Roberto Altschuler Stern, an astronomer and author from Puerto Rico who has written that we are all just "hijos de las estrellas" (children of the stars).

To some, such an idea may sound like the stuff of fantasy, but according to Altschuler, the idea stems more from reality. He has spent years writing and lecturing on how the facts of the universe are often more interesting than anything found in fiction, and being children of the stars is a great example of this, he says. Humans, like all organic life forms, are composed of matter made up of elements that were formed in the wake of powerful supernova star explosions.

"Along with his high-level scientific research in astronomy, Professor Altschuler has had a second career educating the public in science through his books, articles, lectures, exhibits and other activities," says Catherine O'Riordan, AIP Vice President, Physics Resources. "We are pleased to be able to recognize his efforts with the 2010 Andrew Gemant award, which recognizes significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics.

Given annually, the award consists of $5,000 cash to the winner and a grant of $3,000 to further the public communication of physics at an academic institution the winner chooses. Gemant winners are also invited to deliver a public lecture on a topic of their choice, and on May 26, 2010 at the 216th American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Miami, Altschuler will give a lecture titled "Science, Pseudoscience and Education."

A graduate of Duke University in Durham, NC (B.S.E., 1969) and Brandeis University in Boston, MA (Ph.D., 1974), Altschuler has been a member of the physics faculty at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras since 1979.

From 1991-2003, Altschuler directed the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center's Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The world's largest and most sensitive radiotelescope -- a 1,000-foot diameter dish -- surveys faint signals originating in everything from Earth's upper atmosphere to some of the universe's most distant galaxies. Scientists use this telescope to answer questions related to the distribution of galaxies in the universe and to study the mechanisms behind pulsar emission, the structure of radio galaxies, the properties of solar system objects (via radar), and the behavior of electrons and ions in the ionosphere.

Throughout his career, Altschuler has tried to bridge the gap between scientists and the public -- both through his teaching and writing and by transforming the Arecibo Observatory into a venue for science education. As director of the observatory, Altschuler raised some two million dollars for the new "Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center" at the observatory and supervised its construction. He also oversaw a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund permanent exhibits to fill this space, which is now the top place on Puerto Rico where members of the public can learn about science.

Altschuler's efforts to bring science to the public led him to help found a society for amateur astronomers in Puerto Rico and to travel far and wide lecturing to large audiences -- from Johannesburg to Montevideo to New York to Chicago and across Latin America. He has authored numerous scientific papers and a variety of articles and books in English and Spanish for the general public.

In 2001 the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature awarded its second prize for the best book of the year to his book "Hijos de las Estrellas" -- also: "Children of the Stars"- (Cambridge University Press). The institute awarded him the second "Bolivar Pagán" journalism prize for articles he published in 2003 and 2005. In 2006, the same body awarded his book "Ciencia, Pseudociencia, y Educació" ("Science, Pseudoscience and Education") first prize in its "investigació y críica" category.

Altschuler sees the topic of this last book as one of the great paradoxes of the modern world. How is it, he wonders, that some people can know so little about the universe when we live in a society that has come to know so much?

"Collectively, we know a great deal more about life, the universe, and everything than what Aristotle or Archimedes knew a couple thousand years ago, and more than what we knew a few hundred years ago," says Altschuler. "Yet, a large fraction of the public knows much less than what they knew, and maintain beliefs worthy of a caveperson. (With all due respect of the caveperson who had no choice)."

After he accepts his prize in Miami on May 26, 2010, Altschuler will deliver a lecture on pseudoscience, the prevalence of pseudoscientific thought, and why we should care.

About the Gemant Award

The Andrew W. Gemant Award recognizes the accomplishments of a person who has made significant contributions to the cultural, artistic, or humanistic dimension of physics given annually. The award is made possible by a bequest of Andrew Gemant to the American Institute of Physics, and the awardee is named by the AIP Governing Board during the annual spring meeting based on the recommendation of an outside Selection Committee appointed by the Institute’s Board Chairman. Gemant award recipients are invited to deliver a public lecture, given $5,000, and are asked to designate an academic institution to receive a grant of $3,000 to further the public communication of physics.

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