Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of astronomy, has been awarded the 2020 Carl Sagan Medal by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society for excellence in public communication in planetary science.
“This is wonderful recognition for Ray Jayawardhana,” President Martha E. Pollack said. “Not only is he a visionary and effective dean for the College of Arts and Sciences, but he continues to thrive as a frontline researcher, a popular writer and a compelling public speaker.”
The award is named in honor of the late Cornell planetary scientist, educator and author, who brought science to millions of people worldwide with his PBS series, “Cosmos,” and the 1980 book of the same name. As a teenager in Sri Lanka, Jayawardhana himself was inspired by “Cosmos,” and met Sagan years later, after moving to the United States.
“Like Carl Sagan was, Dr. Jayawardhana is an active, accomplished academic scientist,” the DPS award announcement stated. “While reaching out to the general public, Ray has remained a highly published and cited scientist and has been honored repeatedly for his research accomplishments in the fields of exoplanets and planetary formation. [Also] like Carl, Ray has traveled the globe bringing astronomy to diverse audiences through lectures and the media.”
Jayawardhana has published four popular books: “Star Factories: The Birth of Stars and Planets” (2000); “Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System” (2011), which served as the basis for a CBC television documentary; “Neutrino Hunters” (2013), which won the Canadian Science Writers’ Association book award; and “Child of the Universe” (2020), aimed at children and expanding on Sagan’s legacy by revealing humanity’s deep and enduring links with the cosmos.
Over three decades, Jayawardhana’s writing has appeared in The Economist, Science, New Scientist, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Muse, Astronomy, and Sky & Telescope. His op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Jayawardhana has won numerous accolades for his research, writing and outreach, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, the Rutherford Medal in Physics, the Steacie Prize for Natural Sciences, and the Dwight Nicholson Medal for Outreach. Asteroid 4668 Rayjay is named after him.
As a professor, Jayawardhana taught thousands of nonscience majors in introductory astronomy courses at the University of Toronto. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he has continued his research program, characterizing exoplanets, exploring the diversity of planetary systems, and investigating the origin and evolution of brown dwarfs, using the world’s largest telescopes and space observatories.
Past winners of the Carl Sagan Medal include Steve Squyres ’78, Ph.D. ’81, professor emeritus in astronomy, who now serves as chief scientist for the private aerospace company Blue Origin.