W. Niel Brandt, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and professor of physics at Penn State, has been appointed as the Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics, one of the highest honors awarded to faculty members in the Penn State Eberly College of Science. He was appointed to the Chair by the Office of the President, based on the recommendations of colleagues and the Dean, in recognition of his national and international reputation for excellence in research and teaching.
“I am very pleased that Niel Brandt has been recognized as the Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics,” said Randy McEntaffer, professor and head of astronomy and astrophysics. “Niel is a world leader in his fields of astronomical expertise, an accomplished and highly regarded teacher over a wide range of courses, and a tireless contributor of service to the profession and to Penn State. The Eberly Family Chair is the one of the most prestigious faculty recognitions in our college and Niel is a very deserving recipient.”
Brandt is an astrophysicist who uses data from sensitive X-ray and other observatories to study cosmic phenomena, including supermassive black holes and how they feed, grow, and affect the galaxies in which they reside. His research group works toward creating the most sensitive cosmic X-ray surveys to date using the world’s most advanced X-ray observatories. These surveys have revealed many thousands of active galaxies—galaxies with a central core that emits luminous radiation—that were missed in surveys at other wavelengths. When matched with multi-wavelength complementary surveys, these X-ray surveys have revealed information about the physical processes and interactions of active galactic nuclei with their host galaxies.
Because of the extreme sensitivity of the surveys, Brandt’s lab has been able to detect X-rays whose origins date back to close to the beginning of the universe—reaching back across 90 percent of cosmic history. Brandt’s group has also led intensive X-ray observations of the most- distant-known active galaxies, aiming to study the growth of the first supermassive black holes that formed in the universe. Their research helped to reveal that the basic X-ray properties of these distant objects generally appear remarkably similar to those of the active galaxies that are closer to the Milky Way. His work supports the idea that X-ray emission is a nearly universal property of growing black holes even out to the earliest cosmic epochs.
Brandt has also studied the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, galaxies with highly elevated star-formation rates, and binary star systems containing a black hole or neutron star.
“I am most grateful to Penn State for supporting my work for 25 years, and especially to many superb students and postdoctoral scholars who have helped me explore black holes and the high-energy universe,” said Brandt. “With the kind support of the Eberly Family Chair and data from new astronomical facilities, as well as a bit of luck, I hope to make even faster progress in cosmic discovery in the coming years.”
Brandt was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2020, an honor bestowed by peers upon members of the AAAS, the world's largest general scientific society and the publisher of the journal Science. His previous honors include the Bruno Rossi Prize of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society in 2016, the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy from the American Astronomical Society in 2004, a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2000, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in 1999, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1996. Brandt was included in the Highly Cited Researchers List by Thomson Reuters (now Clarivate) in 2007, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
He was honored by Penn State in 2010 with the title of Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and in 2014 with the title of Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 1997, Brandt was a Smithsonian Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics from 1996 to 1997. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1992 and a doctoral degree in astronomy at Cambridge University in 1996.