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Professor Conny Aerts awarded 'Belgian Nobel Prize' for pioneering research on the evolution of stars

Professor Conny Aerts of the KU Leuven Institute of Astronomy has been awarded the 2012 Francqui Prize, commonly referred to as the 'Belgian Nobel Prize' and one of Belgium's most prestigious scientific awards. Professor Aerts leads a team carrying out research in asteroseismology, a young branch of astronomy that studies star evolution on the basis of their vibrations.

Professor Conny Aerts of the KU Leuven Institute of Astronomy has been awarded the 2012 Francqui Prize, commonly referred to as the 'Belgian Nobel Prize' and one of Belgium's most prestigious scientific awards. Professor Aerts leads a team carrying out research in asteroseismology, a young branch of astronomy that studies star evolution on the basis of their vibrations.
Professor Conny Aerts awarded 'Belgian Nobel Prize' for pioneering research on the evolution of stars

Professor Conny Aerts | © Rob Stevens - KU Leuven

The Francqui Foundation awards the prestigious 250,000-euro prize annually, alternating each year between laureates from the exact sciences, human sciences, biology and medicine. Several Francqui Prize laureates have gone on to receive major international awards, including the Nobel Prize.

Professor Aerts is pleased by the news: "The prize is a huge pat on the back for our research. I am also the first woman from the exact sciences to receive the Francqui Prize. This accomplishment shows that a woman with a family and children can make it in this tough sector. This is of real symbolic importance: each year many young girls with a talent for the exact sciences choose degree programmes in non-exact disciplines because they're too easily convinced – due to lack of role models – that they are not suited for the exact sciences."

"I'm a fundamental scientist at heart. Astronomy does not belong to the world of industrial applications, patents and spin-offs. Perhaps that is why this is only the fourth Francqui Prize awarded in the discipline. But at the same time, astronomy speaks to everyone's imagination."

Crucial precision

As an asteroseismologist, Professor Aerts studies the oscillations – that is, vibrations –  of stars to gain insight into their internal structure. To do this, she developed her own unique method by which theoretical models are empirically tested on the astronomical reality. Aerts: "My research team is very multidisciplinary: it includes a number of engineers, and our discoveries are based on space missions and telescope work. Our successes are the result of observation work linked to theoretical astrophysics. That is the greatest merit of our research: most astronomers are either in the purely theoretical camp or in the observational camp. We build a bridge between the two. And it gets results.

Even early in her career, Professor Aerts had been developing scientific methods through statistical analysis to enable researchers to obtain highly accurate information about the oscillations of stars. That precision is of crucial importance. The measurement and interpretation of stellar oscillations is the only way to look inside stars and to scrutinise their physics through observational testing. The precision with which the team of Professor Aerts examines stellar oscillations enables science to gain insight into the evolution of stars and, by extension, other celestial bodies. Building on her methods, Professor Aerts was able to determine that the core of certain stars rotate faster than their surface – a phenomenon that had not yet even been determined for the sun.

In good company

The official award presentation will take place on 13 June in the presence of King Albert. The 250,000-euro award comprises a personal prize of 150,000 euro, a research grant of 25,000 euro and 65,000 to 70,000 euro for an international symposium and a smaller conference in the Academia Belgica in Rome. "I have no idea what I'm going to do with the prize money," says Professor Aerts. "The news of the award is still sinking in for me. But in any case, a portion will be going to educating young people. That is particularly important to me."

The Francqui Foundation was founded in 1932 by Belgian diplomat Emile Francqui and former U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Both invested in various scientific organisations to stimulate research in Belgium following World War I. The foundation has awarded the Francqui Prize since 1933. Professor Aerts joins a distinguished group, including past and present KU Leuven researchers Georges Lemaître (1934), Henri Koch (1951), Joseph IJsewijn (1980), Desire Collen (1984), Gery Van Outryve d'Ydewalle (1992), Peter Carmeliet (2002) and Marie-Claire Foblets (2004).

Full interview with Professor Conny Aerts