I'm gonna be informal here, since I've known Debbie for years. I kidnapped and flew her to help me do my Vox Pop radio show a dozen years ago. Yes, she's brilliant - especially in her area of special expertise: galaxies. But her real standout trait is her upbeat personality. She smiles all the time. It's almost supernatural.
Elmegreen's generous nature and love of sharing knowledge is reason enough to cheer the wisdom of this AAS vote. Beyond that, however, her cheerful energy will put an attractive happy-face on the official coin of Astroland.
From a selfish standpoint, too, I'm pleased with this turn of events. I personally know the AAS spokesman, lots of NASA and JPL insiders, the head of the Carnegie Institution for astronomy, and am good friends with the editors of both major US astronomy periodicals. Having first-name relationships with the country's top astro-players has always been helpful whenever I want to get a story straight.
As for Vassar's role in all this, you might think that it's a sleepy cosmic backwater. Actually it boasts an impressive astronomy pedigree. Debbie holds the Maria Mitchell Chair of Astronomy, named for a famous 19th-century suffragette, the first woman professor at Vassar and one of the great astronomers of her time - in an era when it was strictly a male profession.
Whenever I go to Nantucket - Maria Mitchell's birthplace, in 1818 - I take the ten-minute stroll to Vestal Street to visit her old observatory, still lovingly maintained. Across the quiet, tiny street, which must not have changed very much in the intervening two centuries, there's now a laid-back Visitor Center, and I invariably interview whoever is currently in charge. I'm sort of a Mitchell groupie, even though she's been dead for 120 years. Twice in the past quarter-century, the director urged me to return at night, and we gazed through the dome at the same stars that so enchanted Maria.
I admire Mitchell's philosophy as much as her science. "We learn to live in the universe as a part of it," she'd said 150 years ago. "We cannot separate ourselves from it. Our every act connects us with it; our every act affects the whole."
Well, her acts affected science, all right. She was the first woman anywhere to discover a comet: Comet Mitchell, in 1847. And it was she who announced that sunspots were storms and not merely clouds on the sun, as had been universally believed.
After being appointed a professor at Vassar in 1865, she spent her remaining years here in the Hudson Valley. She was revered by astronomers everywhere. She was also the first woman elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the founder and first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.
And now it is Debbie Elmegreen who not only holds the Maria Mitchell Chair, but will also lead this country's professional astronomers. Bravo!
She told me last week that she expects her main job to be presiding over the twice-yearly national meetings, where two or three thousand astronomers gather in multiple sessions to present papers. Presiding over meetings? That's it?
No way. This modest woman will also oversee five divisions of the AAS, including High Energy and Planetary Science. And it goes far beyond that, too: Debra Elmegreen will be a major player in setting a decade-long roadmap for astronomy projects and research in the country, "based on work by a committee I've recently been appointed to by the National Academy of Sciences." In short, the national astro-priorities of the next decade will largely radiate from Poughkeepsie.
Elmegreen's passion for astronomy began when she started stargazing at age five. "I think its something deep within all of us - that we look at the sky. And for some of us, it's not just beautiful, but we wonder why it is like it is," she said. She was "always building telescopes" through high school, and pursued her interest through college and graduate school. The first woman to graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Astrophysics from Princeton in 1975, Elmegreen also was the first woman to be awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at the Palomar Observatory.
And what does she do for fun? "I'm a diehard Yankees fan," Elmegreen says, "so watch out, Red Sox - we're going to beat you this year! Astronomy is still my hobby too, so I end up doing it for a good bit of my time."
Sounds like someone you'd be fond of, right? Everyone likes Debbie Elmegreen. Small surprise that her fans included the voters of the AAS, when they picked a new leader to help steer our nation through the universe.
[Editor's note: Visitors from the community are welcome at the observatory for open nights on Wednesday nights from 9-11 p.m. during the school year, weather permitting. If uncertain about weather conditions or the viewing schedule, contact the Department of Physics and Astronomy at (845) 437-7340 before 4:30 p.m., or call the observatory at (845) 437-7679 after 8:45 p.m.]