From Symmetry: “High-energy visionary”

Symmetry Mag


Oscar Miyamoto

Meet Hernán Quintana Godoy, the scientist who made Chile central to international astronomy.


Professor Hernán Quintana Godoy has a way of taking the long view, peering back into the past through distant stars while looking ahead to the future of astronomy in his home, Chile.

For three decades, Quintana has helped shape the landscape of astronomy in Chile, host to some of the largest ground-based observatories in the world.


ESO/VLT at Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

ESO/Cerro LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres


Carnegie 6.5 meter Magellan Baade and Clay Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile.

NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile



ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile

Giant Magellan Telescope, Las Campanas Observatory, to be built some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile

LSST telescope, currently under construction at Cerro Pachón Chile, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes.

In January he became the first recipient of the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society from a country other than the United States or Canada.

Long overdue.

“Training the next generation of astronomers should not be limited to just a few countries,” says Keely Finkelstein, former chair of the AAS Education Prize Committee. “[Quintana] has been a tireless advocate for establishing excellent education and research programs in Chile.”

Quintana earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 1973. The same year, a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet took power in a coup d’état.

Quintana came home and secured a teaching position at the University of Chile. At the time, Chilean researchers mainly focused on the fundamentals of astronomy—measuring the radiation from stars and calculating the coordinates of celestial objects. By contrast, Quintana’s dissertation on high-energy phenomena seemed downright radical.

A year and a half after taking his new job, Quintana was granted a leave of absence to complete a post-doc abroad. Writing from the United States, Quintana published an article encouraging Chile to take better advantage of its existing international observatories. He urged the government to provide more funding and to create an environment that would encourage foreign-educated astronomers to return home to Chile after their postgraduate studies. The article did not go over well with the administration at his university.

“I wrote it for a magazine that was clearly against Pinochet,” Quintana says. “The magazine cover was a black page with a big ‘NO’ in red” related to an upcoming referendum.

UCh dissolved Quintana’s teaching position.

Quintana became a wandering postdoc and research associate in Europe, the US and Canada. It wasn’t until 1981 that Quintana returned to teach at the Physics Institute at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

He continued to push the envelope at PUC. He created elective courses on general astronomy, extragalactic astrophysics and cluster dynamics. He revived and directed a small astronomy group. He encouraged students to expand their horizons by hiring both Chilean and foreign teachers and sending students to study abroad.

“Because of him I took advantage of most of the big observatories in Chile and had an international perspective of research from the very beginning of my career,” says Amelia Ramirez, who studied with Quintana in 1983. A specialist in interacting elliptical galaxies, she is now head of Research and Development in University of La Serena.

In mid-1980s Quintana became the scriptwriter for a set of distance learning astronomy classes produced by the educational division of his university’s public TV channel, TELEDUC. He challenged his viewers to take on advanced topics—and they responded.

See the full article here .

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Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.