Charles Steidel was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962. He earned his A.B. in Astrophysical Sciences from Princeton University in 1984 and his Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1990.
Throughout his career Steidel has studied the formation of galaxies at various epochs in the history of the universe. His 1995 discovery of the most distant galaxies to date—from a period more than 12 billion years ago, when the universe was just over a billion years old—revolutionized the study of galactic evolution.
Steidel held a Hubble Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1990 to 1993. He served as an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1993 to 1995, then moved to Caltech in 1995 in part because that institution had access to the recently-commissioned 10-meter W.M. Keck Telescope in Hawaii, at that time the most powerful telescope on Earth. It was at that telescope, during the initial observing run in October 1995, that Steidel and his colleagues succeeded in identifying the earliest galaxies.
That work earned Steidel the 1997 Helen B. Warner Prize, awarded annually to a young astronomer who has made a significant contribution to observational or theoretical astronomy. His other honors have included an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship in 1994, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, also in 1994, a David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship from 1997-2002, and a MacArthur Fellowship from 2002 to 2007. He has been the Lyman Spitzer Lecturer at Princeton, the Sackler Lecturer at Leiden Observatory, and the Mohler Prize Lecturer at the University of Michigan. He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2006, and he received the Medal of the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris in 2008.
Steidel has served on advisory committees for the Keck Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Next Generation Space Telescope, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, among other institutions.
Since 2004 Steidel has been the Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Astronomy at Caltech, where he has continued to reinvent the study of galactic evolution.