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Spinoza Prize 2019 for astronomer Amina Helmi

Highest Dutch scientific prize awarded to University of Groningen Professor
21 June 2019
Prof. Amina Helmi

Amina Helmi, a professor of Astronomy specializing in Milky Way dynamics, structure and formation, will receive the Spinoza Prize in October. Chair of the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific research) Stan Gielen announced the news in Amsterdam today (Friday 21 June). Besides the UG astronomer, the other recipients of the Spinoza Prize are Bas van Bavel, Yvette van Kooyk and Ronald Hanson. Andrea Evers and Jack Pronk will receive the Stevin Prize. The researchers are receiving the prize for their outstanding innovative and inspiring work.

Reveiving the Spinoza price

The new UG Rector Cisca Wijmenga, was awarded this most prestigious Dutch scientific distinction in 2015, and therefore knows what it means: “Another glorious day for the University! Amina Helmi is an excellent astronomer, and winning the Spinoza Prize is a well-deserved tribute to the magnificent and inspiring work done by her and her research team.”

The Spinoza Prize is the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and named after the seventeenth-century philosopher, mathematician and political thinker Baruch Spinoza. Each of the prizewinners will receive € 2.5 million to spend on scientific research and activities involving knowledge use. They are completely free to choose their research topic and to involve other – often young – researchers.

Galactic archaeology

'For me, the real fascination lies in the contrast between how vast the universe is and how small we are'
'For me, the real fascination lies in the contrast between how vast the universe is and how small we are'

Amina Helmi is a professor of Astronomy specializing in Milky Way dynamics, structure and formation at the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen. She is one of the founders of galactic archaeology: the reconstruction of the history of star systems on the basis of their current positions, movements and the stars within them. Her theories, models and experiments are significant contributions to our knowledge about the shape, structure and history of the Milky Way and neighbouring galaxies. Helmi’s vision and leadership were crucial in bringing about the European Gaia space telescope, which has studied the movement and composition of over a billion individual stars since 2013.

Helmi: “I am fascinated by the history of our Milky Way. The Gaia space telescope is like a pair of spectacles that suddenly allows us to see everything much more clearly. We have recently discovered that the Milky Way swallowed a major star system 10 billion years ago. But what happened before that event? What did the Milky Way look like then? What processes were important at that time? Ultimately, I want to construct the lineage of the Milky Way’.

Star of the Milky Way

Departing Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken states that Amina Helmi is an academic hero: “I am incredibly proud of Amina Helmi. A scientific star in Astronomy and an academic hero within and outside the UG. Professor Helmi is a role model to many and a very amiable person too. Research into the development of the universe is extremely important to us all.”

The Spinoza Prize and the UG

The first Groningen researcher to receive a Spinoza Prize was George Sawatzky (Natural Sciences) in 1996. Four years later, he was followed by Dirkje Postma (Respiratory Pathophysiology); another four years later, Ben Feringa (Organic Chemistry) received the coveted award. Things then quieted down for a while, but the UG made a comeback in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2014 and 2015 Theunis Piersma (Global Flyway Ecology) and Cisca Wijmenga (Human Genetics) received the Spinoza Prize. In 2016, Lodi Nauta (History of Philosophy) and Bart van Wees (Science and Engineering) celebrated their Spinoza prizes together.

Award ceremony in October

In 2019, outstanding scientists will be presented with the NWO’s Spinoza and Stevin Prizes for the 25th time. These prizes primarily recognize the quality of their work. The Spinoza Prize focuses on scientific contributions towards fundamental issues, while the Stevin Prize mainly concerns the societal impact of the work. The festive award ceremony will take place at the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague on Wednesday 2 October. During this ceremony, the Spinoza and Stevin prizewinners will explain their research and what they intend to do with the prize money.

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