Illustration by Caetano Santos

Astronomers’ research can reach galactic proportions. A lifetime of such research may culminate in a medal that fits in the palm of the human hand.

The federal government will recognize UC Santa Cruz astronomer Sandra Faber’s achievements in the larger field of astronomy at a White House ceremony on Feb. 1, where President Barack Obama will award Faber the National Medal of Science.

“I don’t have much experience with the White House,” Faber said. “It’s all very grand. I expect to be very impressed and generate a whole bunch of memories that will last life long.”

According to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) website, the medal is awarded to those who are “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the … sciences.”

“Dr. Faber was nominated by the committee and selected by the president because she meets the criteria for the medal,” said Mayra Montrose, an administrator in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) award program. “Her research and work with the community is exemplary and have helped move science forward in the United States.”

Faber’s numerous contributions to the field of astronomy merited national recognition, said Jason Prochaska, a UCSC astronomy professor and associate director of Lick Observatory.

“She’s played a role in just about every major discovery over the last 40 years,” Prochaska said. “It’s the depth as well as the breadth. [Her discoveries] range from understanding the dynamics of individual galaxies, supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, how populations of galaxies formed and evolved over the past 10 billion years and the large scale structures that they inhabit in the universe.”

Over the course of her career, Faber has focused on what she describes as the “lumpiness” of galaxies.

“The earliest universe was almost uniform,” Faber said. “And yet, today, we see that matter is divided into these lumps with practically nothing in between, with empty space. I’ve been involved in this aspect of the history of the universe: why did the universe get lumpy?”

Starting in 1992, Faber headed the team for the development of the Deep Extragalactic Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS), instruments attached to the Keck telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. These instruments allow researchers to detect the spectra of galaxies, without which a galaxy’s distance from Earth cannot be known.

The development of DEIMOS allowed Faber and her collaborators to conduct the first survey of large galaxies as they existed in the past.

UCSC has been highly conducive to her research, Faber said.

“The University of California has created a fantastic set of facilities and environments in which to do this kind of research,” Faber said. “At UCSC [there is] a great intellectual atmosphere, a very fertile think-tank where we talk about these topics.”

Faber’s work has also been promoted through grants provided by NSF.

“[Faber] has been very successful,” Montrose said. “That means, to me, that NSF chooses its grantees wisely. Eleven of the 12 Medal recipients have received funding from NSF.”

Federal agencies such as NSF exist to promote scientific progress through funding, Montrose said.

“The federal government science agencies are proud of funding basic and applied research that makes an impact on our nation’s economic and knowledge base and helps society,” Montrose said.

In terms of funding, the medal is a reflection upon both the scientist and those who funded the scientist’s research, Montrose said.

“Because the National Medal of Science is a lifetime achievement award, not a single achievement award like the Nobel Prize, it reflects the vision of the individuals and their funding organizations, whether government or private,” Montrose said. “[The award is for]the individuals because they had the genius to come up with novel ideas, and the funding organizations because they had the foresight to trust the individuals and their genius.”

Faber said this medal affects the larger scientific community in the United States because it motivates young students to pursue science. However, she said the award fails to palpably promote scientific progress.

“This award is valuable,” Faber said. “But in terms of actually providing tangible support, it’s a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t actually contribute to the research that needs to be done.”

President Barack Obama addresses federal support of scientific research in his Budget Message, available for viewing on the White House official website. Obama writes, “In this Budget, we are sustaining our level of investment in non-defense research and development (R&D) even as overall spending declines.”

According to the budget breakdown on the White House official website, the Department of Defence will be allotted $525.4 billion in 2013. In terms of astronomical research, $7.4 billion will be allotted to NSF and $17.7 billion to NASA in 2013.

This funding — a total of $25.1 billion — is fractional compared to the funding granted to the Department of Defence, among other departments.

“I think that the federal government and the state government really haven’t taken proper notice of what a vibrant research program contributes to the intellectual life of the nation or the economy,” Faber said.

Astronomy would contribute to both the nation and the economy in its applicability to physical conditions upon this planet, Faber said.

“Astronomy and cosmology, they’re the sciences that set the stage,” Faber said. “They give us the backdrop against which we do all of our planning as human beings.”

The physical laws that govern astronomy and cosmology act upon humanity, Faber said, and they may predict outcomes to issues facing the human race today, such as climate change.

“People who believe in miracles think that we can continue to pollute the environment, and God will save us,” Faber said. “I don’t believe that. It’s very fundamental — it’s subtle, but its extremely deep. We have to take responsibility for ourselves. We are subject to physical law, and there’s no escaping it.”