back to news Jan. 10, 2020

Astronomy professor awarded 2020 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics

Christopher Kochanek, professor and Ohio Eminent Scholar in the Department of Astronomy, has won the 2020 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, awarded jointly by the American Institute of Physics and the American Astronomical Society to recognize outstanding mid-career work in the field of astrophysics.

Kochanek was recognized with the Heineman Prize for his research into supernovae and black hole formation and his work building a worldwide network of telescopes through the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN).

“AIP is pleased to congratulate Dr. Kochanek for his contributions and his continued work into revealing the secrets of the night sky,” said Michael Moloney, chief executive officer of AIP. “His exploration and search into how large stars die as supernovae and their potential to form black holes could be one of the most exciting challenges of modern astronomy.”

Kochanek said the search for a failed supernova creating a black hole has been an elusive hunt. He isn’t deterred, both continuing the search for new, promising candidates with the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope to confirm a current possibility by determining if "the first candidate survived but is obscured by dust too cold to see with the Spitzer Space Telescope," Kochanek said. 

“We are also really excited by our search for noninteracting, compact object, neutron star or black hole binaries by combining the ASAS-SN project with spectroscopic surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey - APO Galactic Evolution Experiment," he added.

“I am delighted to hear that Chris Kochanek has been named the 2020 Heinemann Prize winner,” said Megan Donahue, president of AAS. “[Kochanek] joins a very impressive list of past winners. He is a brilliant and versatile astronomer with accomplishments in theory and observations and in topics ranging from gravitational lensing to supernovae. The ASAS-SN project, led by Chris (and co-principal investigator Krzysztof Stanek at Ohio State) and his collaborators, has not only yielded a rich trove of transient science for many of us, but the project has also coined one of the more memorable acronyms in astronomy.”

Kochanek credits patience and persistence in the development of the ASAS-SN project, which is based at Ohio State and is the first project to search the entire visible sky on a nightly basis for transient phenomenon. The project started small in 2012 and doubled its efforts as it found success, similar to the development of the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment project that was started in 1992 and continues to run a long-term variability sky survey.

“If we had started out with the system we have today, it would have been a disaster,” Kochanek said. “The transients I have had the most fun with are tidal disruption events (TDEs). Way back in my thesis, I did the first numerical simulations of a TDE with Chuck Evans, now at the University of North Carolina. Suddenly with ASAS-SN, we were finding more TDEs and collecting better data on them than ever before. A certain symmetry from theory to practice.”

When asked about his most favorite project or discovery, Kochanek likened the choice to picking a favorite child. But he said he has enjoyed his areas of study to date and looks forward to the future with hopeful eyes.

“The great thing about astrophysics is that you can still reach that point (of wanting a change) and just switch to something new.”

Christopher Kochanek graduated from Cornell University in 1985 with degrees in physics and mathematics before receiving a physics doctorate in 1989 from Caltech under the supervision of previous Heineman Prize winner Roger Blandford. He was a Theoretical Astrophysics Center postdoctoral student at University of California, Berkeley, from 1989-91, a professor in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University from 1991-99 and an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1999-2003 before joining Ohio State as an Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor of astronomy. Kochanek's present focus is on the deaths of massive stars, searching for failed supernovae with the Large Binocular Telescope and the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae.

The Heineman Prize is named after Dannie N. Heineman, an engineer, business executive and philanthropic sponsor of the sciences. The prize was established in 1979 by the Heineman Foundation for Research, Education, Charitable and Scientific Purposes, Inc. Awarded annually, the prize consists of $10,000 and a certificate citing the contributions made by the recipient plus travel expenses to attend the meeting at which the prize is bestowed. 

Photo credit: Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Institute