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Election Year: 1976
Scientific Discipline: Astronomy
Membership Type: Member
John Norris Bahcall was one of the towering figures of 20th-century astrophysics. His major achievements include: precise calculations of the structure of the sun, which led to the identification and solution of the “solar neutrino problem” (ostensible discrepancies between sun and earth neutrino fluxes) and to an enhanced understanding of the physics of the sun’s—and other stars’—energy generation; contributions to a wide range of topics in galactic and extragalactic astrophysics, including the structure of the intergalactic medium, the distribution of stars in the galaxy, and the behavior of dense stellar clusters around black holes; a major role in the scientific design of and advocacy for the Hubble Space Telescope; leadership of long-range planning for the U.S. research effort in astronomy and astrophysics; development of the Institute for Advanced Study as one of the world’s premier centers for astrophysics; and the mentoring of a significant fraction of leading next-generation theorists in astrophysics.
Bahcall received an A.B. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. He went on to graduate work in physics at the University of Chicago, obtaining an M.S. in 1957; and then to Harvard University, completing his Ph.D. in physics in 1961. He worked at Caltech from 1962 to 1970 and became a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ) in 1971. He remained at the institute until his death in 2005, at which time he held the title of Richard Black Professor of Astrophysics. During his tenure, Bahcall established a unique—though often imitated—model for postdoctoral training in astrophysics, a key aspect of which was a large and rotating group of postdocs who had been aggressively recruited by Bahcall from the most promising young researchers worldwide and then given complete freedom to work on whatever subjects they chose. He often collaborated with them but actively encouraged them to write good papers on their own or with each other.
Although eminent scientists often discover their calling early, Bahcall might be termed a late bloomer. He did not take science classes in high school and began his college studies at Louisiana State University as a philosophy student on a tennis scholarship and considered becoming a rabbi. When he transferred to Berkeley he was still majoring in philosophy. Bahcall took his first physics class as a graduation requirement.