Departmental History

Astrophysics Department History up through the 1970s

The Princeton Companion by Alexander Leitch (1978, Princeton University Press), a compendium of historical documents about Princeton University, provides a history of the department through the 1970s.

Old Peyton Hall

Astrophysics Department History since the late 1970s

In 1979, Lyman Spitzer stepped down as chair after over three decades as the head of the department.  Jeremiah P. Ostriker took over and led the department until 1995, when he became Provost of the University.  After brief terms by Ed Turner and Bruce Draine, Scott Tremaine held the position for almost a decade before leaving for a position at the Institute for Advanced Study.  David Spergel was chair from 2005 to 2016 before becoming director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York.  Jim Stone was chair from 2016 to 2019, before he also left for the Institute for Advanced Study.  Michael Strauss is the current chair. 

Martin Schwarzchild and Lyman Spitzer remained active in their retirement. Schwarzchild developed his novel modeling techniques for the dynamics of stars in elliptical galaxies. Spitzer watched the Hubble Space Telescope first suffer from defects and then flourish after its dramatic repair.  Schwarzschild and Spitzer passed away within 10 days of each other in 1997.

The late 1970s and 1980s were marked by a significant expansion of the department, during which time the number of faculty increased to roughly a dozen, many of them having come first through the "farm team" of a position at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study.  The 1980s were marked by intensive work on the physics of gravitationally bound stellar systems, and by the 1990s, astrophysicists in the department became increasingly interested in problems in computational astrophysics, starting with Jeremiah Ostriker with work on cosmological simulations, and continuing to the present with Jim Stone, Anatoly Spitkovsky, Adam Burrows and others studying accretion disks, shocks, supernovae, and stellar atmospheres.  One decisive breakthrough in this period was the late Bohdan Paczynski's 1986 hypothesis that gamma-ray bursts lay at cosmological distances, and his successful pursuit of this hypothesis until it is now an observationally confirmed fact.

The 1980s also was a time of substantial new initiatives in observational astrophysics. Princeton University became a partner in the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), and used the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-m telescope for two decades for a variety of studies.  More significantly, under the leadership of Jim Gunn, Jerry Ostriker, Jill Knapp, and Robert Lupton, Princeton was a major partner in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a 2.5-m wide-field telescope at Apache Point which saw first light in 1998, which is now in its fifth incarnation.  Princeton astronomers built the imaging camera, designed the telescope, and wrote much of the image-processing software.  Discoveries led by Princeton astronomers with this survey (often using the 3.5-meter for follow-up) included the most distant quasars known at z~6 and evidence for reionization of the universe in their spectra, the first field brown dwarfs with surface temperatures below 1000K, and the segregation of asteroid families by color.

Much of Princeton's observational effort has been defined by large-scale surveys of the sky. The late Bohdan Paczynski led a series of ever-more-ambitious surveys at Las Campanas Observatory to discover thousands of gravitationally microlensed stars in the Magellanic Clouds and the Galactic Bulge, data that also yielded new insights into Galactic structure and variable stars. David Spergel and Jo Dunkley worked with colleagues in the physics department (Lyman Page, Norm Jarosik, and the late David Wilkinson) on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which made exquisitely precise measurements of the fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The first summary paper of this survey (Spergel et al. 2003), describing the implications for cosmology, is one of the most cited papers in the history of astronomy. Spergel, Page, Dunkley, Suzanne Staggs (Physics) and others have built and are operating the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, which is measuring CMB fluctuations on smaller scales, yielding new insights into the physics of the early universe and the formation of galaxies with cosmic time.  

Princeton astronomers are heavily involved in the planning of the next generation of optical surveys, with the 8.2-m Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time  (LSST) in Chile, and the Nancy G. Roman Observatory (formerly known as WFIRST).

The department has increasingly become involved in collaborations with other departments in the University. There are strong ties with the Physics Department, especially with the Gravity Group, in work on theoretical cosmology, computational astrophysics, and measurements of the CMB. We collaborate with faculty in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Operations Research and Financial Engineering on spacecraft and instrument design for studies of extrasolar planets. This reflects a growing interest in the department in studies of extrasolar planets and astrobiology, leading naturally to collaborations with the Geosciences and Molecular Biology departments. And we have four faculty members with joint appointments: in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (Chris Chyba), the Department of Physics (Jo Dunkley), the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (Matthew Kunz),  and the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics (Romain Teyssier). Hand in hand with the increase in the faculty, the postdoctoral program has also grown, from a handful of researchers in the early 1990's to of order 50 now. These postdocs go on to some of the most prestigious faculty positions in the world.

Faculty 1949



The Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton has been fortunate enough to be home to some truly great astronomers.

Evry L. Schatzman, Newton L. Pierce, Martin Schwarzschild, John Quincy Stewart, Lyman Spitzer, Henry Norris Russell, 1949