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Professor receives Sagan Medal for excellence in public communication

May 19, 2011

Professor Jim Bell, planetary scientist at Arizona State University, is the 2011 recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science. The prize is named after the distinguished planetary scientist Carl Sagan (1934-1996), who through public lectures, television, and books, contributed significantly to the public’s understanding of planetary science.

The Sagan Medal was established by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society to recognize and honor outstanding science communication contributions by an active planetary scientist to the general public. It is awarded to scientists whose efforts have significantly contributed to a public understanding of, and enthusiasm for, planetary science. Bell is the twelfth recipient of the Sagan Medal and the first from Arizona State University.

A faculty member in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since early this year, Bell’s professional interests primarily focus on the geology, geochemistry, and mineralogy of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets using data obtained from telescopes and spacecraft missions. He is widely recognized in the planetary science community for his cutting-edge research on Mars and for being an extremely active and prolific public communicator of science and space exploration.

Bell has been heavily involved in many NASA robotic space exploration missions, including the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rover, Mars Odyssey Orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Science Laboratory rover mission. As a member of the Mars Exploration Rover team, he has served as the lead scientist in charge of the Panoramic camera color, a stereoscopic imaging system on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Bell’s extensive involvement with NASA missions is matched by his career-long commitment to educational outreach and engaging the public in the excitement of science. His dedication to disseminating the photography and imaging results from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in real-time on the internet is but one example of how he has helped to bring the excitement of exploration to the living rooms of many households around the world.

He is a frequent contributor to popular astronomy and science magazines like Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, and Scientific American, and to radio shows and internet blogs about astronomy and space. He has appeared on television on the NBC “Today” show, on CNN’s “This American Morning,” on the PBS “Newshour,” and on the Discovery, National Geographic, and History Channels. He has also written three photography-oriented books that showcase some of the most spectacular images of Mars and the Moon acquired during the space program: “Postcards from Mars” (Dutton/Penguin, 2006), “Mars 3-D” (Sterling, 2008), and “Moon 3-D” (Sterling, 2009).

In addition, Bell is president of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest public membership space exploration advocacy organization, and serves on a variety of committees and panels for NASA and the greater scientific community. He serves as a faculty advisor for the ASU chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and works closely with colleagues in the ASU Mars Education Program to help with teacher workshops and public speaking events.

“It’s such an honor to receive this award, named in honor of one of my mentors. Like many colleagues from my generation, I was inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series in the early 1980s. When his show came along it was the first time that we could get the latest information about space directly from an expert who could actually communicate with people,” says Bell. “It’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t just go on the internet and get information. You could only find out about the latest discoveries in science if they happened to be on the nightly news or in the newspaper. I think that’s why that show made such an impact, both on the general public, and on me in particular. I can trace my early interest in planetary science–and in communicating the excitement of science in general–to Cosmos and to Carl Sagan’s patient, enthusiastic, and very personal style of science education.”

The Carl Sagan Medal will be presented to Bell during the DPS 2011 meeting, Oct. 3-7, in Nantes, France.