Notre Dame Astrophysicist Beers receives Distinguished Science Alumni Award from Purdue

Author: Brian Wallheimer

Timothy Beers 1200

Timothy Beers might have been able to go anywhere for his undergraduate education. He remembers a recruiter from Yale University offered him a scholarship while visiting Indiana once, but Beers would have still had to pay significant fees and tuition.

He prudently opted for Purdue University, where his father’s employment as a faculty member came with a steep discount on classes. Beers thinks he paid about $400 total for dual degrees in physics and metallurgical engineering.

“I was familiar with Purdue at a very young age. I went to football and basketball games from age 7,” Beers said. “It’s a great school.”

The same practicality that kept Beers in West Lafayette in the 1970s also pushed him toward a degree in metallurgical engineering. Steel plants in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, had jobs, and Beers saw a steady future for himself there.

Realizing that he had taken enough physics classes to be close to a dual degree, Beers pursued both tracks. In doing so, he signed up for a course in astrophysics.

Beers had long loved the idea of the cosmos and space travel, and he was often exposed to it growing up in the home of Purdue, which to date has had 23 graduates become astronauts, including the first and last men, respectively, to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan. He remembers going through the stacks of newspapers on his Lafayette Journal & Courier delivery route, searching for a perfect, uncreased front page with a full-color picture of astronauts in their “Right Stuff” poses so he could add the photo to a scrap book.

The astrophysics course wasn’t to be, however. With too few students registered, the professor cancelled the class. But Beers wasn’t deterred. He had already purchased the course’s book and read it cover to cover.

“I said to myself, ‘you can do this,’” Beers said.

With a passion for the math and science he studied in his physics track, Beers filled out an application to Harvard University to study astrophysics. And that choice put him on a path to becoming one of the world’s premiere galactic archaeologists.

“Going into the steel business didn’t seem so inspiring, so I decided to go toward astronomy and astrophysics. I had to take a chance, follow my passion, and see how it worked out,” Beers said. “As I often tell my present students, if for whatever reason your desire or passion changes or things don’t go your way, that’s an excellent time to review your decisions. But not before.”

Beers was honored recently by his alma mater for the work he’s done in astrophysics. Purdue’s College of Science has bestowed upon Beers one of its 2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards. The honor goes to one person from each of the college’s seven departments each year for “alumni whose work and achievements have made a significant difference in our communities and lives.”

John P. Finley, head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue, noted Beers’ impact on astrophysics and astronomy, as well as his service on editorial boards for some of the field’s top academic journals. Beers has been a principal investigator for a National Science Foundation Physics Frontier Center since 2008 and has been director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Ariz.

“Beers has had a long and distinguished career since his days at Purdue. Tim’s research is in the broad field of nuclear astrophysics, and he has been pursuing studies of metal-poor stars and their connection to the first generation of stars in the universe,” Finley said. “Tim was our choice for a Distinguished Alumni Award because of his impact in the field of nuclear astrophysics and his distinguished service to the science community.”

Since his days as a Boilermaker, Beers earned his doctorate in astronomy from Harvard and was a Bantrell Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology before embarking on a 25-year career as a professor at Michigan State University. He has spent his research life of more than 30 years piecing together clues on the formation of galaxies and the evolution of elements in the universe. He entered the field asking questions that have, in some cases, taken decades to answer.

“I’ve worked for many years on big-picture kinds of things,” Beers said. “There are a number of projects going on for the past two decades that we’re still working on.”

In the last few years, Beers and colleagues have developed detailed maps from data collected from hundreds of thousands of stars to show how the Milky Way may have formed. His chronographic age maps support a hierarchical view of galaxy formation in which the oldest of the Milky Way’s stars are at the center and gravity has pulled other smaller galaxies toward it.

Beers credits a rigorous education for the discipline he developed to focus on long-term, complex questions. He said his biggest accomplishment has been in developing a better understanding of our universe while realizing that the answers will continue to evolve.

“We don’t have a full story. We have a plausible story that’s developed on how the Milky Way formed, how the chemistry in our universe was created. I’m still seeking answers to questions on all those things,” Beers said.

Beers, now the Notre Dame chair in astrophysics, is a member of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics – Center for the Origin of the Elements, the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, the International Astronomical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Astronomical Society, and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

He said the Distinguished Science Alumni Award is humbling.

“This is a distinct honor for me,” he said. “Given all the graduates who might be considered for such an award, it really is special to be recognized in this way.”