WASHINGTON, D.C., February 22, 2019 -- The American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced today that its Board of Directors has elected astrophysicist David J. Helfand as its new chair. He begins his appointment effective March 1. 

Helfand is a faculty member of Columbia University in New York, where he has worked for 42 years and served as chair of the Department of Astronomy nearly half that time. He is the author of more than 200 scientific articles and has mentored 22 doctoral students during that tenure. He is also known for teaching science to non-science majors in a fun and creative, storytelling manner. 

In his new role, Helfand will be responsible for providing leadership to AIP's Board of Directors and will guide their efforts overseeing governance, policy and corporate strategy for the Institute, a mission-driven nonprofit organization based in College Park, Maryland, devoted to advancing, promoting and serving the physical sciences for the benefit of humanity. See www.aip.org

Helfand will also chair the Board of Managers for AIP Publishing, a wholly owned nonprofit subsidiary of AIP based in Melville, New York. AIP Publishing advances the physical sciences by publishing journals and providing services and tools for the scientific community. Helfand has already served on AIP Publishing's board as interim chair since September 2018. 

"We are delighted to welcome David to lead our Board of Directors," said AIP CEO Michael Moloney. "For the last few months, he has guided AIP and AIP Publishing while serving as interim Board chair, and his steady leadership will be invaluable as we move to plan and implement a new long-term vision and strategy for the Institute." 

"He is renowned within the astrophysics community for rewriting our understanding of those hot, dense objects in the universe known as neutron stars," Moloney added. 

Helfand became interim Board chair in mid-2018. His appointment as permanent Board chair follows a national search. 

“One of the most important challenges of our time is to re-establish the centrality of evidence-based, rational decision-making in both personal and public affairs," Helfand said. He identified a number of AIP activities that already address this challenge, including 

  • The TEAM-UP project, which is investigating the persistent underrepresentation of African-American undergraduate students in physics and astronomy, with support from AIP's Statistical Research Center
  • The FYI newsletter, which informs scientists, government leaders and lawmakers on the latest science policy information and analysis; 
  • AIP's flagship publication Physics Today, a highly-regarded magazine that serves members of the physical science communities; 
  • Public Policy staff at AIP, who works directly with AIP member societies to enhance communication with members of Congress and federal agencies; 

"AIP can and should take a leadership role in promoting sound, evidence-based decision-making in addressing the problems now facing humanity," Helfand said. 



David J. Helfand grew up in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in astronomy in 1973. He subsequently earned a master’s in physics and a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Massachusetts in 1977. 

Beyond serving on the faculty of Columbia University for 42 years, Helfand also spent three years at the University of Cambridge, most recently as the Sackler Distinguished Visiting Astronomer. Earlier, he was a visiting scientist at the Danish Space Research Institute and the University of Copenhagen. 

Helfand is well known for his innovative approach to teaching non-science majors about science, one example of which involves treating the atom as a tool for revealing the quantitative history of everything -- from the human diet and works of art to the Earth’s climate and the universe. This course is available as a 24-lecture set from The Teaching Company. He also introduced a science component to Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum which celebrates its centenary this year. Helfand received Columbia’s 2001 Presidential Teaching Award and the 2002 Great Teacher Award from the Society of Columbia Graduates. 

In 2005, Helfand became involved in an effort to create Canada’s first independent, nonprofit, secular university, Quest University Canada. He served as a visiting tutor in Quest’s inaugural semester in 2007, then as president and vice-chancellor from 2008-2015, leading this innovative experiment in higher education. He is now working to help create other new universities based on this model in England and Wales. 

Helfand is deeply involved within the astronomy community and served from 2011 to 2014 as president of the American Astronomical Society, the professional organization of astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary scientists and solar physicists in North America. AAS is one of 10 AIP Member Societies. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Science Counts, an organization formed to communicate the importance and impact of publicly funded research to the public. 

Science outreach is important to Helfand, and for years he made weekly appearances on the Discovery Channel’s program "Science News," bringing the latest astronomical discoveries to U.S. television audiences. More recently, he has appeared on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" and the National Geographic channel series "The Known Universe." 

Helfand also wrote a book, “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age,” released in 2016, which provides essential tools to combat what he calls “the tsunami of mis- and dis-information that threatens to drown all rational approaches to personal decision-making and the formation of good public policy.” 

In addition to his appointment as chair of the AIP Board of Directors, Helfand serves on several advisory committees, including, recently, as chair of NASA’s Hubble Fellowship Program. 



The American Institute of Physics is a nonprofit federation of professional societies that serves the broad physical science community through programs in news, advocacy, student programs, careers, awards, outreach, statistics, history and more. AIP publishes Physics Today, the most closely followed magazine in the physical sciences, and it owns AIP Publishing, a nonprofit scholarly publisher that serves the physical sciences community through scholarly publishing activities. More: http://www.aip.org