‘Spergelfest’ Symposium Celebrates Astrophysicist David Spergel’s Career, Fifth Anniversary of the Center for Computational Astrophysics

A photograph of David Spergel amongst other people in seats in an auditorium.
David Spergel at the special symposium at Princeton University.

For early-career astrophysicists, the name David Spergel can be intimidating. He’s a leading figure in the scientific community and co-winner of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics. He’s a prominent national voice on government funding of science and has frequently testified before Congress. He is the founding director of the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) and is now the president of the institute’s parent organization, the Simons Foundation.

But those nerves about emailing Spergel or saying hi in a coffee shop line quickly melt away, as those who know him will tell you. During a recent symposium celebrating Spergel’s career and the fifth anniversary of the CCA, speakers painted a picture of a warm, welcoming person who is always happy to mentor junior scientists.

Spergel will “go to great lengths to make us feel comfortable to just go out there and try things out,” said CCA associate research scientist Shy Genel, recalling Spergel singing karaoke on a trip.

The special four-day symposium, whimsically dubbed Spergelfest, took place from October 22 through October 25 at the Simons Foundation and Princeton University, where Spergel is the Charles A. Young emeritus professor of astronomy on the class of 1897 foundation.

The event marked Spergel’s 60th birthday, continuing a long-running tradition of such symposia in academia. Friends, colleagues and former students gave talks describing how Spergel has benefited the scientific community over his decades-long career. For instance, his pioneering work was instrumental in enabling NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe to capture images of the universe’s oldest light in unprecedented detail. Those data allowed for a slew of exciting new possibilities in cosmology.

Speakers at the multiday event included CCA director Julianne Dalcanton and Simons Foundation co-founders Jim and Marilyn Simons. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent his best wishes via prerecorded video message, lauding Spergel’s work in encouraging — and guiding — government funding of science.

The celebrations focused not only on Spergel but also on the first five years of the CCA. Since launching in 2016, the center has rapidly established itself as a hub for collaboration and innovation in the field of astrophysics. Speakers attributed the center’s success to Spergel’s leadership, describing how he has embraced new opportunities such as machine learning and fostered a close-knit creative environment.

“The culture and impact of the CCA [are] inseparable from David Spergel’s influence and his vision,” said CCA group leader Rachel Somerville. “Having the opportunity to be part of shaping the CCA from the beginning has really been one of the best experiences of my life.”

Many speakers celebrated Spergel’s commitment to making the CCA an inclusive environment and his wholehearted support for efforts related to diversity, equity and inclusion. For instance, under his tenure as CCA director, the center launched a collaboration with the National Society of Black Physicists to offer Black undergraduate physicists summer research opportunities to help further their careers.

“I love that CCA is about more than just science — it’s inclusive and obviously a lot of fun, too,” said Marilyn Simons. It’s about “being part of society and thinking about how we could be the forces of change.”

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