Wolszczan Featured on Millennium Stamp Set with Pope John Paul, Lech Walesa, and Nicolaus Copernicus
Alexander Wolszczan, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and discoverer of the first planets found outside our solar system, has been honored by the country of Poland in having his likeness featured on a special set of 16 postage stamps celebrating the past millennium. Also featured on the stamp with Wolszczan are Nicolaus Copernicus, considered by many to be the founder of modern astronomy, and the Arecibo radiotelescope, which Wolszczan used in his discovery of the planets.
"I have been told that the design of the stamp is intended to celebrate a continuation of a good tradition in astronomy in my homeland," Wolszczan said. "Copernicus moved us from the center of the universe to where we are now. Since then, many important steps have been taken to understand our position in the universe. My discovery is just one of many steps that have been taken."
Wolszczan's pairing with Copernicus is particularly apt, considering both lived in Torun, Poland, both are pioneers in astronomy and Wolszczan earned his master's and doctoral degrees from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, developed the Copernican system, which placed the sun at the center of planetary orbits. Wolszczan became the first person to discover planets outside our solar system in 1992, when he used the 1,000-foot Arecibo radiotelescope to detect three planets orbiting a rapidly spinning neutron star. His discovery, which suggested that planets might be plentiful throughout the universe, opened the door to the current intense era of planet hunting.
Wolszczan said his honor can inspire future scientists all over the world. "Certainly it immediately tells you that if you work hard enough, make good progress, and have a little bit of good luck, you can go pretty far in science just as you can in other domains," he said. "In countries such as my homeland where it is more difficult to achieve something, such encouragement is especially inspiring to young people."
The Polish 16-stamp set, titled "Polish Millennium," summarizes the last 1,000 years of history, culture, and science in Poland. Each stamp represents a different field of life, including: Christianity; parliamentarism; history of political publications; theater; independence; internationalist traditions of the polish military forces; astronomy; education; traditions of the Polish army; the struggle for independence; art; music; Poland in the European system; Polish symbols; Polish sport; and, language, letters, and literature.
Other prominent figures featured on individual stamps in the set include Pope John Paul II and popular labor leader Lech Walesa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and elected his country's president in 1990.
"I'm very pleased to be on the stamp and it also feels a little bit strange because I never expected it would go that far," Wolszczan said. "I feel happy and a little bit embarrassed."
Among Wolszczan's previous honors are the Marian Smoluchowski Medal — the highest prize awarded by the Polish Physical Society. Previously, he was presented with the Gold Medal Award of the American Institute of Polish Culture in 2000, the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit Award from the president of Poland in 1997, the Casimir Funk Natural Sciences Award from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, and the Beatrice M. Tinsley Award from the American Astronomical Society in 1996. He also received the Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal for Outstanding Achievement in 1994, the Popular Science Award for "Best of What's New" in 1994, the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation award in 1993, and the Annual Award of the Foundation for Polish Science in 1992. Wolszczan was named an Evan Pugh Professor in 1998, the highest distinction Penn State can bestow upon a faculty member.
Images of both the 16-stamp set and the individual stamp featuring Wolszczan are available on the internet at
Information on obtaining the Polish Millenium stamp set is available from Hank Bieniecki at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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