UVA Astronomer Named to French Legion of Honor

May 7, 2014

Trihn Thuan has been named chevalier of the National Order of the French Legion of Honor, by decree of French President François Hollande.
Credit Photo: Dan Addison/University of Virginia

It’s not unusual for top college professors to win awards – Nobel prizes and Pulitzers – but one member of the University of Virginia faculty was recently honored in a surprising way.  Little known in this country, he was knighted by a foreign government.

A tent was installed behind the home of UVA President Teresa Sullivan.  Uniformed waiters poured wine, and caterers had prepared an appealing buffet for about a hundred invited guests, but this was no ordinary soiree.  One guest of honor was the French ambassador, who had driven down from Washington to make a prestigious award.

“The Legion d’Honeur is France’s highest award.  It was created by Napoleon in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments, chosen by the president of France personally.”

But few Americans have heard of Trinh Thuan, a professor of astronomy and the author of more than 230 articles and eleven books that help laymen to understand science.  He was born in Hanoi, raised in Saigon and educated in French.

“I was always a very curious kid.  I always asked questions about why the sky is blue, why things move – y’know things like that.  So I wanted then to go and study physics.”  
But when the time came for university, diplomatic relations with France had broken down, so Thuan could not go to Paris.  

“So I applied to three schools – MIT, CAL TECH, and then Princeton, because my idol was Einstein and Einstein worked at Princeton.

All three accepted him, and the decision came down to … The Beach Boys.

“In Vietnam I listened to the Beach Boys changing the wonders of the beaches and California girl, so I decided to go to Cal Tech.”

Credit Photo: Dan Addison/University of Virginia

He had great professors and the largest telescope in the world at that time – Mt. Palomar.  Many members of the physics faculty were studying space – identifying quasars and pulsars, radiation left over from the Big Bang, and Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon.  How could a young man in this place, at this time, study anything but astrophysics?

After getting his bachelor’s degree, he got a PhD at Princeton, returned to Cal Tech for a post doc, and then, in 1976, accepted his first teaching position at the University of Virginia.

“In part because of Thomas Jefferson.  He is my American hero.”

And having the National Radio Astronomy Observatory nearby didn’t hurt. These days he watches the cosmos through the Hubble Space and recently identified the youngest galaxy in the Universe.

“By just looking at how bright the stars are and what is the color – if they are red, we know that they are old, and if they are blue then we know they’re young, so by looking at the color and the brightness one can tell how old they are.”

Despite his love of space, he’s never aspired to be an astronaut.  It’s enough for him to stand on the Earth and study the stars.  Even after he was knighted, his feet remained firmly on the ground.  Back in his office, crowded with books and papers, wearing a light blue cardigan sweater, he vowed to keep teaching and doing research.

“It’s nice to be recognized, but I would say honor and wealth is probably not the basis of life.  It’s more the relationship you have with other human beings and then the satisfaction that you derive from your work.”

In becoming a French knight, Thuan joins a select group of Americans honored in this way – among them, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, Generals Patton, Powell and Patraeus, Julia Child and Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Jerry Lewis, Bruce Willis and Walt Disney.