Famous Polish Americans: Bohdan Paczyński


by Agnieszka Gerwel

Did you know that a Polish American, Bohdan Paczyński (1940-2007) was the first astronomer to receive all three awards of the Royal Astronomical Society in England?
That an asteroid #11755 Paczyński was named after him? That in 2006, he was given a Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, thought of as equivalent to a Nobel Prize in astronomy?

Born in Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania (2/8/1940), Paczyński lived there through Soviet and Nazi occupations until 1945 when the family moved to Poland, settling in 1949 in Warsaw. As an astronomer, he was a prodigy: at the age of 18 he published his first scientific paper, “Minima of Eclipsing Variables” – the start of a lifelong fascination with binary stars. After several summers spent with Professor Włodzimierz Zonn in Ostrowik Observatory, he decided to become an astronomer. In 1962-1981, he worked at the Astronomical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN); at 36, he was the Academy’s youngest member (since 1961). He received his Ph.D. at Warsaw University in 1964. With Professor Józef Smak, he was a proponent of creating Warsaw’s Copernicus Astronomical Center, to celebrate Copernicus’ 500th birthday in 1974. Since 1961, Paczyński frequently visited the U.S.; in 1975-76 and again in 1981, he was a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar.

During the second fellowship, in December 1981, martial law was imposed in Poland and he decided to remain in America. Paczyński accepted an offer at Princeton University, eventually becoming Lyman Spitzer Jr. Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics and the first Polish-born member of the National Academy of Sciences (initially a foreign member and since 1984 as an American). He authored over 300 scientific papers about stellar evolution, gravitational lensing and microlensing, variable stars, gamma-ray bursts, and galactic structure. His research focused on a new and unique method of astronomical observations of objects which do not emit light on their own. Paczyński maintained strong relations with the astronomy community in Poland, and he hosted a steady stream of visitors from his homeland. He initiated OGLE, the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, a cooperation between Warsaw University, Princeton University and Carnegie Institution, led by Professor Andrzej Udalski. The aim of the project was an analysis of dark matter using the microlensing technique.

Most of the observations took place in Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. At least seven new planets have so far been discovered by the OGLE Project. “His influence on the field was enormous,” said Professor Spergel of Princeton University. “Entire subfields of astrophysics either would not have existed without him, or would have been radically different.” Wrocław University and Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń honored Professor Paczyński with doctorates honoris causa. In September 2011, a Medal in memory of Bohdan Paczyński was established by the Polish Astronomical Society (PTA) as the highest scientific distinction awarded in Poland to an individual in the field of astronomy. A professor beloved by students and faculty, he taught astrophysics at Princeton University from 1989 to 2007. I had the pleasure of spending an evening with him and his graduate students at one of the Star Gazing events at Peyton Observatory. Professor Paczyński mesmerized members of Quo Vadis, a Polish Club at Princeton, with observations of nebulae, globular clusters and galaxies through a 12″ Schmidt-Cassegrian telescope. It was a unique evening, making us see the incredible complexity of our universe.

 Source: Polish American Historical Association


The Polish American Historical Association is a non-profit, tax-exempt, interdisciplinary organization devoted to the study of Polish American history and culture. Founded in 1942 as part of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, PAHA became an autonomous scholarly society in 1948. As an affiliate of the American Historical Association, PAHA promotes research and publication of scholarly materials focused on Polish American history and culture as part of the greater Polish diaspora. 

PAHA publishes a scholarly peer-reviewed journal, Polish American Studies, and disseminates information about its activities via a newsletter, blog, and a Facebook group. Membership is open to all individuals interested in the fields of Polish American history and culture, and immigration studies.