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Faculty Profile: Ann Merchant Boesgaard

by Robert Joseph, Faculty Chair, Institute for Astronomy

This is the first in a series of short faculty profiles.

Ann Boesgaard

Ann Boesgaard explains her poster paper at the Carnegie Observatories Centennial Symposium IV: Origin and Evolution of the Elements, which was held in February 2003. Photo courtesy of Donald Clayton.

Ann Boesgaard was born in Rochester, New York, on the first day of spring. She did her undergraduate study at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in physics, mathematics, and astronomy. She elected to follow a career in astronomy as the best way to combine her love of these three subjects. She received her doctorate in 1966 from the University of California, Berkeley, where her thesis supervisor was George Herbig, who is now a professor emeritus at UH.

In the 1960s, being a female astronomer was not always easy, but Ann Boesgaard did not let any difficulties discourage her. Hired as a postdoc at Caltech for only two-thirds the salary offered to her male counterpart, she observed at Mount Wilson Observatory, but as a woman she was relegated to an unheated cottage with no hot water while the male observers lived in a warm, comfortable "monastery."

Boesgaard's research has focused on the abundance of the light elements lithium and beryllium in the atmospheres of stars, and she has used these studies to investigate a number of fundamental astrophysical problems. Scientists believe that lithium and some beryllium was created during the first few minutes after the Big Bang, and its abundance can tell us much about the precise physical conditions during that time. However, there is a catch: Temperatures of over 2 million degrees destroy lithium. In a star like our Sun, the temperature is that hot for 97 percent of the interior. Deeper inside a star, at temperatures of 3 million degrees, beryllium is also destroyed. Astronomers can detect lithium and beryllium in the upper atmospheres of stars, but atmospheric circulation takes these elements below the surface, so it is a tricky business to correct for the destruction of them. For example, only about 1 percent of the original lithium remains in the Sun, but virtually all the beryllium is still present.

Boesgaard has won many honors and awards, including a DSc degree from Mt. Holyoke College, a NATO Senior Science Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Professorship, a Smithsonian Fellowship, the Medal of the College de France, and the 1990 Muhlmann Prize of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. She has served on a variety of national and international astronomy advisory committees and boards: the American Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Boesgaard lives with her husband of 38 years, Hans, a mechanical engineer who has played a major role in building three of the telescopes on Mauna Kea, and their wonderful cat, Daiquiri.