Ewine van Dishoeck receives Fritz Zwicky Prize

March 11, 2022

The European Astronomical Society awards the 2022 Fritz Zwicky Prize for Astrophysics & Cosmology to Prof. Ewine F. van Dishoeck (Leiden University, the Netherlands and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics). The Fritz Zwicky Prize for Astrophysics & Cosmology honours scientists who have obtained fundamental and outstanding results related to astrophysics and/or cosmology.

The Fritz Zwicky Prize is awarded biennially, for the first time in 2020, by the European Astronomical Society on behalf of the Fritz Zwicky Foundation, located in Glarus, Switzerland. Prof. Ewine F. van Dishoeck (Leiden University, the Netherlands and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) receives the 2022 Fritz Zwicky Prize for Astrophysics & Cosmology for her groundbreaking, decades-spanning work in observational astrochemistry and molecular spectroscopy, revealing the secrets of molecules from interstellar clouds to star and planet formation, and for her leadership within the astronomical community.

Prof. van Dishoeck has devoted her career to understanding how molecules shape the Universe around us. Her unique and comprehensive approach encompasses quantum chemical calculations, laboratory studies, and astronomical modelling and observations. She has pioneered and led the field of astrochemistry and revolutionized our understanding of the physical processes leading to the formation of stars and planets by studying the trail of molecules from star-forming clouds to protoplanetary disks.

A big mystery in the early days of astrochemistry was how large molecular clouds could exist in space when the ultraviolet parts of stellar light can easily destroy them. Prof. van Dishoeck’s famous and much-cited PhD thesis and early work showed how abundant molecules like molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO) could protect the interior of a cloud through a process called “self-shielding“. This research led to several seminal papers on the chemical structure of diffuse interstellar clouds.

Prof. van Dishoeck has frequently exploited cutting-edge observational facilities, especially in the infrared and (sub-)millimetre wavelength ranges. She pioneered mid-infrared spectroscopy in star-forming interstellar clouds and discovered the presence of key organic molecular species locked in ices on grains. Her research revealed that icy grains are effective factories of pre-biotic organic molecules, ensuring that these species are present in significant amounts when terrestrial planets are formed.

Together with her teams she studied in detail the formation and evolution of proto-stellar disks with ground and space observatories at submillimeter and infrared wavelengths, tracing in particular the path of water from interstellar clouds, via collapsing cores, to planet-forming disks. Her masterful application of spectroscopic tools across a broad range of wavelengths, with a superb exploitation of the most capable astronomical measurement techniques, and increasingly powerful theoretical modelling have brought the goal of understanding the formation of solar systems many steps closer.

She led the Leiden Laboratory for Astrophysics from 1992-2005, in which experiments are conducted to simulate the chemical processes in and on icy grain mantles. She now leads the development of sophisticated physical-chemical models of gas-phase and gas-grain chemistry from the small to large scales, linking the observations and basic processes. In addition to her groundbreaking scientific work, Prof. van Dishoeck has been an active and vital member of the astronomical community. As president of the International Astronomical Union, she led the celebrations for its centenary in 2019; the more than 5000 public and scientific activities reached millions of people worldwide. She also co-curated that year an exhibition on Cosmos: Art & Knowledge. She has been a strong advocate for a number of large ground and space-based observational facilities that push the studies of the molecular universe to unprecedented levels. These include ALMA and the Herschel and MIRI/JWST satellites. Her science vision, leadership, and political skills enabled her to play key roles in all phases of these projects. The trust that the community has in her judgement is also apparent from her memberships of the deciding bodies of ESA and review committees of top astronomical research institutes.

Her unique and high impact research has made Ewine van Dishoeck the leading and most influential observational astrochemist in the world, as demonstrated her citation numbers: over 670 published papers, cited nearly 50,000 times, with an h-index of 113, one of the highest of the entire astronomical community.

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