Astrophysicist Piero Madau inducted into Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars

Piero Madau
Piero Madau (Photo by Joson Images)

Piero Madau, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, has been inducted into the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars for achieving marked distinction in the physical sciences. Madau was among 15 new inductees honored at an event at Johns Hopkins University in April.

For the past two decades, Madau's work has focused on key events in the early evolution of the universe, including the dawn of galaxies, the formation of the first stars and black holes, and the reionization of the intergalactic medium. He studies the transition from the cosmic 'dark ages'--a cold, opaque, primordial universe of neutral hydrogen and helium gas--to the beginning of the 'cosmic renaissance' with the emergence of the first galactic systems and the chemical enrichment and reheating of the cosmos. Madau pioneered the use of 21-centimeter radiation as a probe of this epoch.

In recent years, his team has carried out some of the largest and most sophisticated computer simulations of Milky Way-like galaxies, the formation of their stellar disks, the assembly and clumpiness of their dark matter halos. "Understanding the dark and luminous sides of galaxy formation is currently a hot topic in astronomy," Madau said.

Born and educated in Italy, Madau earned his B.S. in physics at the University of Florence, where he graduated magna cum laude. He continued his education at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste to obtain a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. After graduation, Madau came to the United States for a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology.

He moved to Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) first as a Davis Fellow and then as a junior faculty. Located on the Johns Hopkins University campus, STScI operates the science program for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

"Piero Madau was clearly a brilliant postdoctoral fellow here in Baltimore," said Colin Norman, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins and astronomer at STScI. "Everyone knew he might well do something very important. Time went by, then one day at lunch time, Piero sat next to me and said, 'Well Colin, I've finally done something that might be significant.' All of the people around the table suddenly woke up."

Piero then produced a figure, as Norman recalls, which showed the cosmic history of star formation using Hubble Telescope data. "We thought this discovery might be found from Hubble, but not so clearly and quickly," said Norman. Now known as the "Madau diagram," it has a status in cosmology similar to the famous Hertzsprung–Russell diagram in stellar evolution. Matching the arc of cosmic star formation history has become one of the standard tests of theories of galaxy formation.

This discovery garnered world-wide attention from astronomers and contributed to Madau's induction into the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars. Established in 1967, the society inducts former postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral degree recipients, house staff, and faculty who served at least a year at Johns Hopkins and have since gained distinction in the fields of physical, biological, medical, social, or engineering sciences or in the humanities. Madau joins 625 other distinguished men and women in the society.

"I feel honored and privileged to have been invited to join this prestigious society," said Madau. "I will be forever grateful to my colleagues at Johns Hopkins and Space Telescope for their advice, ever-lasting interest in my research, and day-long discussions on the latest observational results and theories. They taught me to be daring, ambitious, and think outside of the box. Together, we studied some of the most grandiose events in the history of the universe."

After leaving the Space Telescope Science Institute, Madau was a tenured faculty member at the University of Cambridge, England, then came to UC Santa Cruz in 2000 as a professor of astronomy and astrophysics.

Last year, Madau was received the 2014 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, awarded jointly by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to recognize outstanding work in astrophysics. Madau was also part of a team of UCSC astronomers who captured the first image of a distant quasar illuminating a filament of the "cosmic web," which is thought to connect galaxies throughout the universe. The team was recognized by the editors of Physics World for one of the "top ten breakthroughs" of 2014.