University of Texas
Erin Wells Bonning
February 26, 1975–



Erin Wells Bonning


Erin Wells Bonning earned a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. Her dissertation was entitled "Computational and Astrophysical Studies of Black Hole Spacetimes." The work was supervised by Richard A. Matzner. Other members of the committee were Cécile Dewitt-Morette, Philip Morrison, Paul Shipiro and Lawrence Shepley. The thesis was dedicated to her grandmother, Julie Ann Longhenry. Erin Wells Bonning was born on February 26, 1975, in Annapolis, Maryland, the daughter of Stuart Wells Bonning and Maryann Longhenry Bonning. She received the Bachelor of Arts degtree in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland in May 1997. Her senior essay was, " Time Space, and the Absolute World: A Study of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity." After working briefly at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, she entered the graduate school of the University of Texas at Austin in August of 1998. In 2007, Erin received a Marie Curie Fellowship to work at the Observatoire de Paris à Meudon. She also served as a teaching fellow in physical sciences at Quest University Canada in Squamish, British Columbia. She is now Senior Lecturer and Director of the Emory Planetarium at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia.

Erin Bonning's senior photo from St. John's College yearbook,

Below is a nice article from St. John's College magazine, "The College." Summer 2013.

Intergalactic Wanderers:

Erin Wells Bonning Trails a Nomadic Black Hole

by Anna Perleberg Andersen (sf02)

"In 1971, British astronomers Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees hypothesized that the center of the Milky Way galaxy contained a black hole—no run-of-the-mill black hole, either, but a gargantuan one now known to be the mass of four million suns.

"Three years later, a pair of Americans, Bruce Balick and Robert Brown, discovered an enormous source of radio waves in a region of our galaxy called Sagittarius A, now widely accepted as the theorized black hole. In fact, the astronomical community now believes that most, if not all galaxies contain what is termed “super-massive” black holes. How these are formed, however, and their connection with the creation of the galaxies themselves, is still a topic of intense debate and research.

"Erin Wells Bonning (A97), along with her University of Texas at Austin colleague, Greg Shields, recently gained the attention of Science News with a paper that may contribute greatly to our understanding of these giant phenomena. Scientists believe that when galaxies combine, their two central black holes sink to the center, orbiting each other until they eventually merge. Computer simulations, says Bonning, suggest that these pairs “are giving off gravitational radiation, ripples in space-time propagating away from the binary black hole. It’s something that’s predicted in Einstein’s theory, and there are experiments going on right now attempting to detect this phenomenon.”

"These simulations also imply something perhaps more astound- ing: that the union of two black holes can release energy so great as to fling the new object entirely out of its home galaxy, sending it flying across the universe until it settles elsewhere. The idea of such a “runaway” black hole remains unproven, however. researchers like Bonning and shields have combed through dozens of likely candidates, and now believe they have identified one. In 2012, a team of Dutch astronomers led by Remco van den Bosch discovered an anomalous black hole at the heart of a galaxy called NGC 1277, 250 million light-years from earth. This black hole is much larger than the galaxy’s size would predict—a staggering 17 billion solar masses.

"Bonning and Shields’s explanation is that it’s a nomad, having been hurled quintillions of miles over billions of years to reach its position. If true (and in theoretical astro- physics, it’s a long road to certainty), this would be the first definite evidence supporting the “runaway” theory. As such, it is exciting to the scientific community—although difficult for laypeople to wrap their heads around. ( Andrew Grant’s Science News article on Bonning and Shields’s paper can be read online at )

Astronomy was always an interest for Bonning, as she says, “a little geek girl [who] read all about black holes and relativity and quantum mechanics, and it was just the coolest stuff I’d ever heard of.” While she devoured “anything and everything” in the space and physics section of the library, her supportive parents nurtured her interest in science, giving her a small telescope, a microscope, and a chemistry set. “One of my fondest childhood memories is of the day when my dad and I played hooky (me from second grade) to go visit the Air and Space museum in D.C.,” she says. “For the longest time, I thought it was the ‘Erin Space Museum’ because obviously it was built for me!”

Like other Johnnie astronomers, Bonning cites Annapolis tutor Jim Beall’s influence in her choice of astronomy as a career: “He was my freshman seminar tutor, and we eventually ended up working together at the Naval Research Lab for a couple of summers while I was an undergrad” in 1996 and 1997.

Beall calls Bonning “a young woman of enormous energy, focus, and goodwill.” He is “especially fond” of her postdoctoral discovery of the concurrent radio and gamma ray variability of an active galaxy—because he discovered the first such concurrent variability years ago.

During her junior and senior years at St. John’s, Bonning was invited by USNA professor Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac to work in her optics lab. (Novo-Gradac is now a program executive in astrophysics at NASA headquarters.) “She allowed me to audit her class, gave me homework sets. She was just amazing,” Bonning says. “I learned so much from her in the lab, about science and also about the professional reality of being a scientist.”

In 2004, Bonning earned a PhD in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. She has since held a Marie Curie Fellowship at Observatoire de Paris à Meudon, and was the Debra Fine Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University. Currently she is a teaching fellow in physical sciences at Quest University Canada in Squamish, British Columbia. Quest’s educational philosophy is “in some respects very similar to St. John’s,” Boningr says. “It’s very studen- centered, discussion-centered, everyone around a big table.” (The school’s chief academic officer is former Santa Fe tutor Jim Cohn.) As an educator, Bonning believes her job is “not to place knowledge into the mind of the student, but to lead the student through the process of learning.”

Bonning divides her time between teaching and research, which for her and other astronomers in academia involves more computer-modeling and data-crunching than direct observation of the heavens. “The vast majority of time is not spent at the telescope,” she says. “you go and take your data, and then bring your data back to your home institution, where you use it to answer whatever questions you’re posing to the universe at that time.”

The topics of Bonning’s questions are nigh incomprehensible to the outsider: “multi-wavelength observations and theoretical modeling of active galactic nuclei and relativistic jets. Astrophysics of strongly gravitating systems. Electromagnetic signatures of binary black hole mergers and post-merger recoils. sources of gravitational radiation, binary black holes, numerical relativity.” In less technical terms, these subjects of study seek to learn about the origin, construction, and continuing life of the universe.

Asked about which program readings have most influenced her scientific career, Bonning names not Ptolemy, Newton, or Copernicus (although they certainly helped), but Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. “Not because of any questions it made me ask about astronomy, but because it’s the sort of training we’re given at St. John’s,” she explains. “We’re given a book and we’re asked to read it, and we trust that it makes sense. You have to go on faith that there is reason and meaning to be found there, and you struggle with it. [Science] is the same process. We observe the universe, and there seems to be a system of physical laws that describe what we see that are knowable through reason.” Although most of her scientific training took place outside St. John’s, Bonning is grateful for an education in “being fearless when presented with something that doesn’t seem to make sense at all.”



If Thales of Miletus was the first classical astron-omer, Hypatia of Alexandria was the first woman to gain wide renown in the field. Hypatia, who flourished in Roman Egypt during the fourth century C.E., was educated by her father, Theon, and is said to have authored The Astronomical Canon. She also studied and taught mathematics and Neoplatonist philosophy. Apparently she was murdered by a Christian mob, caught up in a conflict between the bishop and the prefect of Alexandria. Although her work is lost, she is immortalized not only in numerous historical novels but in the heavens themselves; her name has been given to an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, and to a crater on the moon.

In the modern era, it remains common to hear concerns that women are under-represented in the hard sciences. Whether this lack of diversity is the result of institutional discrimination, cultural conditioning, or inherent gender differences is an ongoing and controversial discussion. Physics (of which astronomy is considered a sub-discipline) is the most male-dominated of the sciences—but many St. John’s-educated women who have gone on to astronomy careers feel comfortable in their field. Rachel Dudik (A02), an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and Erin Wells Bonning (A97), a teaching fellow at Quest University in Canada, agree that astronomy has changed drastically in the past 10 to 15 years in terms of gender balance, as a new scientific generation advances.

Both are grateful for the example and guidance of older female scientists, like George Mason University’s Shobita Satyapal (Dudik’s post-graduate advisor) or NASA’s Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac, who mentored Bonning in her optics lab at the U.S. Naval Academy. “At the observatory,” Dudik says, “I’m really out-numbered, but I don’t think that’s for lack of effort. We have tried to hire a number of women there, and most of them end up choosing not to come.” She thinks many prefer to go into education.

Bonning, too, admits that “you can be the only woman in a room, but we’ve really come a long way. My advisor has experienced overt sexism—professors actually saying, ‘Women do not belong in this class; you’re taking the space of a man.’ I’ve never heard that, and most of my female colleagues have not.”

Gabrelle Saurage (EC04) studied physics as an undergraduate at Southwest Texas State Uni-versity, where she was the only woman in her department, among both students and faculty members. “There was always an awkwardness about that,” she says, “but I was never harassed, just looked over.” The university now has a fe-male professor on staff, who contacted Saurage years after her graduation, just to check up on how her career was progressing. “I thought that was great!” says Saurage. “Because there are so few women, we all need to take care of each other and encourage each other to keep doing what we’re doing.”

— Anna Perleberg Andersen (sf02)


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