Ray Jayawardhana, Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of astronomy at Cornell, has added another accolade to a trophy shelf that includes being the namesake for an asteroid: the Dwight Nicholson Medal for Outreach.
Next to other American Physical Society awards, the Medal for Outreach encompasses a broad realm of achievement. Since its beginning in 1994, the award has sought to “[recognize] the humanitarian aspect of physics,” according to the APS website.
Past winners have included popular science figures, educators and political dissidents. Prof. Emeritus Yuri Orlov, physics won the award in 1995 for human rights advocacy in his home in the former Soviet Union.
“The main significance to me of receiving the APS Nicholson Medal in 1995 was the message it sent to other physicists … that it is legitimate for a physicist as a physicist—and more broadly as a scientist—to support persecuted colleagues, and to fight for freedom of expression and other human rights,” Orlov said in an email to The Sun.
“As for our Dean, by honoring his outstanding achievements in the sphere of ‘high popularization’ of astronomy, the APS is sending the message that such activity is a legitimate activity of a scientist as a scientist. This message needs repeating in the ivory tower, from time to time,” Orlov said.
Since his undergraduate days writing for The Yale Daily News, Jayawardhana has produced a large body of literature for the science community and the public. In addition to over 125 papers in scientific journals, his writing is regularly featured in outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, according to his website.
In 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, Jayawardhana was involved in Cool Cosmos, a campaign that ran advertisements for an entire month throughout Toronto’s public transit system to get people engaged with the interconnectedness of the universe.
“There are trillions of neutrinos going through your body every second of every day, the tidal interaction between the moon and the earth affect the length of your day. Deep connections between our lives on earth and the universe beyond. The goal was to try to highlight that in a fun way, in kind of a quirky way to get literally a million people to think about it for a few seconds,” Jayawardhana said in an interview with The Sun.
Don Lincoln, a member of the 2018 selection committee, said the wide public reach of Jayawardhana’s work put him over the top for the Nicholson Medal among a field of qualified nominees.
“The vast breadth of his ability to engage the public means that he connected to not tens, not hundreds, but thousands and tens of thousands of people,” Lincoln said in an interview with The Sun.
Lincoln put the importance of scientific outreach in the context of a society in which scientific thought is “under assault,” citing people believing the Earth is flat and denying the well-accepted science of climate change.
“It’s very important that scientists in general engage in the public conversation and we celebrate the people that excel at it,” Lincoln said.
Jayawardhana was appointed as dean in May, moving from York University in Toronto where he was the dean of the faculty of science since 2014. His long list of accolades includes Guggenheim, Radcliffe and Steacie fellowships, the Rutherford Medal, the Steacie Prize, the McLean Award and the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, according to his website.
“It’s always sort of a surprise to be recognized by your colleagues, because it’s a medal for outreach, and outreach is something I’ve been passionate about and engaged in for a long long time, pretty much since I would say middle school,” Jayawardhana said in an interview with The Sun.
Jayawardhana has been interested in space since early on in his childhood in Sri Lanka. Influential figures like Sri Lankan scientist Cyril Ponnamperuma and former Prof. Carl Sagan, astronomy, drove him toward a brand of publicly engaged science, he told The Sun.
“I first knew of Cornell as the place where Carl Sagan worked. I knew about Carl Sagan as an early teenager and watched his Cosmos series on video and read his books, so that model of a scientist who was publicly engaged was very appealing to me and attractive to me,” Jayawardhana told The Sun.
Sagan’s television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage first ran in 1980, and a 2014 remake was presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson was the recipient of the Medal of Outreach in 2017, one year before Jayawardhana would claim the prize.
In addition to his current position the arts college dean, Jayawardhana is still involved in research, using some of the largest telescopes on land and in space to examine distant planets. He has not yet decided how to spend the $2,000 stipend that came with the prize.