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RAS honours outstanding astronomers and geophysicists

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 16:38
Published on Friday, 14 January 2011 16:00


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the UK’s voice for professional astronomers and geophysicists today announced the recipients of the Society’s medals and awards for 2011.

The prizes honour individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to astronomy (here designated ‘A’) and geophysics (‘G’) and will be given out at the 2011 National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2011) to be held in Llandudno, Wales, in April.

Professor Roger Davies, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, offered his heartfelt congratulations to the winners. “With these awards we recognise the extraordinary talents of research astronomers, space scientists and geophysicists worldwide. These men and women, young and old alike, join the ranks of distinguished scientists honoured by the Society for almost two centuries. I am delighted that the RAS has recognised their achievements of which they should be justifiably proud.”

Gold Medal (A)

The Society’s highest honour is the Gold Medal, one of which is available for award annually for extraordinary achievement in astronomy and another for the same in geophysics.

This year the Gold Medal for Astronomy is awarded to Richard Ellis CBE, Steele Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and a Fellow of the Royal Society, in recognition of his outstanding personal research and leadership in astronomy that make him one of the most influential British astronomers of the last three decades.

During his career, Richard Ellis has played a key role in cosmology and astronomical instrumentation. In the 1990s he used the Hubble Space Telescope to solve the ‘faint blue galaxy’ problem, identifying the transformation of irregular galaxies into more quiescent systems. Since then he has made major progress in understanding why galaxies are grouped into the ‘Hubble sequence’ and in recent years has used gravitational lensing to find some of the most distant objects in the universe, with redshifts from 6 to 10.

Prior to Caltech, Richard held posts including Director of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge and Professor of Astronomy at Durham University. During this time he led the 2-degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey (2dFGRS), the first large-scale (and highly successful) cosmology project. Subsequently he has gone on to lead a team proposing a wide-field spectrograph for the Subaru telescope on Hawaii that would be the natural successor to 2dFGRS and is playing a key role in the efforts to build a 30-m telescope.

Richard is the co-author of 340 refereed papers receiving more than 41000 citations, with three of his papers each having more than 1000 citations, giving him a publication record of immense stature. With all-round vision, science leadership and a rich legacy of contributions to cosmology, he is a very worthy recipient of the Gold Medal.

Gold Medal (G)

The Gold Medal for Geophysics is awarded to Professor Eberhard Grün, formerly of the Max-Planck Institut (MPI) für Kernphysik in Heidelberg, in recognition of his work at the forefront of dust in the Solar System.

Over more than 30 years, Eberhard Grün has probably done more than anyone else to advance our understanding of the dynamics and distribution of dust in our planetary system. He has been Principal Investigator for dust experiments on space missions including Helios 1, Helios 2, Galileo, Ulysses and Cassini, provided dust sensors for Giotto and Express 2 and science contributions to Nozomi, Stardust and Rosetta.

Eberhard dominated the development and refinement of techniques to detect tiny (sub-micron size) dust grains, which leads to the derivation of the size and spatial distribution of the Solar system dust complex. The size distribution at the distance of the Earth from the Sun, described in his 1985 paper, is still referred to as the ‘Grün distribution’.

More recently, he developed the Cosmic Dust Analyser on the Cassini mission, which made almost all the key measurements of dust in the Solar System. These include measurements from the Earth’s orbit out to Saturn; the discovery of dust streams in the Jupiter system originating from Io, the first direct detection of interstellar dust flowing through the Solar System, the discovery of high velocity streams from Saturn and analysis of the composition of the plumes from Enceladus that provided evidence for a sub-surface ocean on that moon.

At MPI Kernphysik he oversaw the development of the MPI Van de Graaff dust accelerator and was coordinator for the KOSI project that conducted six years of simulations of the processes that take place on a comet’s surface, providing the impetus to develop the Rosetta cometary lander, whose name he suggested.

Eberhard remains highly active and enthusiastic, for example continuing to support proposals for new missions, developed from his Cosmic Dune concept for a spacecraft with a Cosmic Dust Telescope. With more than 350 published papers, a generous collaborative record and a distinguished scientific career, he is an excellent recipient of the Gold Medal.

Eddington Medal (A)

The Eddington Medal is available for award every other year, for investigations of outstanding merit in astrophysics.

This year’s Medal is awarded to Professor Gilles Chabrier of the Ecole Normale Supériere de Lyon and the University of Exeter, in recognition of his work on the theoretical physics of dense matter in stellar and planetary interiors.

After early work on charged liquids and phase transitions, he moved to the United States in the late 1980s. With Didier Saumon (then his student), he developed the ‘Saumon-Chabrier’ theory that now serves as a benchmark for high-pressure experiments seeking evidence of metallic hydrogen. This in turn led to the ‘Saumon-Chabrier-van Horn Equation of State’ published in 1995 that remains a fundamental tool, for astrophysics, plasma physics and dense matter physics.

In the 1990s he returned to France and began investigating the properties of matter in the interiors of low-mass stars, brown dwarfs (objects on the boundary between planets and stars), giant planets, white dwarfs (the final compact remnants of stars like the Sun) and neutron stars (the incredibly dense remnants of more massive stars).

Professor Chabrier has explored a range of astrophysical problems such as the physics of the interiors of white dwarfs. With his student Laurent Segretain, he showed that crystallisation in these stars leads to a substantial delay in cooling. This in turn solved the discrepancy between the apparent age of white dwarfs and the age of the Milky Way galaxy deduced by observing the globular star clusters that surround it.

Professor Chabrier has also made many contributions to Galactic astrophysics, for instance how the initial stars in the Galaxy were distributed by mass and the fraction of the Galactic mass made up of conventional ‘baryonic’ matter.

Sir Arthur Eddington, for whom the Medal is named, spent much time on the physics of stellar interiors. For making a fundamental contribution to the same field, Gilles Chabrier is a very fitting recipient of the Eddington Medal.

Price Medal (G)

The Price Medal is available for award every other year, for investigations of outstanding merit in solid-Earth geophysics, oceanography or planetary sciences.

Professor Roger Searle of Durham University wins the Medal this year, for his work on the geological processes on the ocean floor.

His early research saw him pioneering the processing and use of the UK-developed GLORIA sonar system that he used to define the boundaries of tectonic plates and understand the evolution of rifts and oceanic microplates. More recently he has worked on the effects of hotspots in the mantle on plate accretion processes. His research career has so far led to more than 100 highly-cited peer-review articles.

Professor Searle has also taken part in many research cruises, including several as chief scientist and has been involved in the Ocean Drilling Programme.

He is influential in geophysics and the sum of his work has led to real advances in our understanding of Earth’s most active and extensive geological system on the ocean floor, making him a deserving recipient of the Price Medal.
Jackson-Gwilt Medal (A)

The Jackson-Gwilt Medal is available for award annually for the invention, improvement or development of astronomical instrumentation or techniques; for achievement in observational astronomy; or for achievement in research in the history of astronomy.

This year’s winner is Professor Matt Griffin of the University of Cardiff, for his work on instrumentation for astronomy in the submillimetre waveband, the region of the electromagnetic spectrum between the far-infrared and microwave wavebands.

Matt Griffin is one of a select group of scientists that helped establish a UK lead in the technical development of instrumentation for submillimetre astronomy. He has been involved in most submillimetre instrument projects over the last three decades, including the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) camera on Herschel. Matt led a diverse international team to bring this project to fruition, encompassing 18 institutions on three different continents.

SPIRE represents a step change in capability. With the ground-based SCUBA camera, 20 nights of observing led to the detection of 5 galaxies at submillimetre wavelengths. With SPIRE, 6000 galaxies can be detected in 8 hours.

Matt Griffin thus receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal for in particular his outstandingly successful work on SPIRE, an instrument that is transforming submillimetre astronomy.

Fowler Prizes

Available for award annually, the Fowler Prizes are for individuals who have made a particularly noteworthy contribution to the astronomical and geophysical sciences at an early stage of their research career.

 ‘A’ Fowler Prize

Dr Vasily Belokurov of the Institute of Astronomy (in Cambridge, UK) receives the Fowler Prize for astronomy for his work on gravitational microlensing, where the gravitational field of stars and planets focuses light from more distant objects.

During his PhD thesis, he carried out an in-depth study of theoretical and observational aspects of microlensing, used statistics to constrain the distribution of mass in the inner Milky Way and played a crucial role in the search for Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs), compact bodies that are candidates for dark matter. He developed new fully automated methods of object classification in large datasets, which had a major impact on his postdoctoral research.

Vasily identified the ‘Field of Streams’, the tails of disrupted satellite galaxies that criss-cross the halo of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. This led to the discovery of faint dwarf spheroidal galaxies in the vicinity of the Milky Way, helping to resolve the discrepancy between the number predicted and the number observed, work for which he received international recognition.

His other achievements include the discovery of the largest ever Einstein ring and the discovery of ultracool white dwarfs.

‘G’ Fowler Prize

Dr James Wookey of the University of Bristol receives the Fowler Prize for geophysics for his outstanding research on the Earth’s deep interior.

James is best known for his work on the region of the lowest part of the Earth’s mantle known as ‘D’. This dramatic interface marks the boundary between the mantle and the core and as such, knowledge of its structure and dynamics has far-reaching consequences for mantle convection, mineral content of the mantle, Earth’s early evolution and the terrestrial magnetic field.

James not only develops robust methods for analyzing seismic data, but also links seismology to mineral physics and geodynamics to create joined-up physical models. These have shed new light on ‘D’, with other work helping to explain the structure of iron in the inner core itself.

He collaborates unselfishly, for example sharing his analysis code and creating a Unix support website for geophysicists and his work has already made a broad impact on the Earth interior research community at a very early stage in his career.

‘A’ Winton Capital Award

The Winton Capital Awards are for research by a Post Doctoral Fellow in a UK institution no more than 5 years after the completion of a PhD, whose career has shown the most promising development.

Dr Sugata Kaviraj, of Imperial College London and the University of Oxford, receives this year’s Winton Capital Award for astronomy.

He has an outstanding record of research focussed on the stellar populations and evolution of early-type (elliptical) galaxies, analysing them in ultraviolet light using the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX). Significantly, he found that rather than being ‘red and dead’ objects, they contain significant populations of young and intermediate age stars.

Dr Kaviraj is exceptionally productive for an early career scientist, with more than 30 refereed papers in the last 4 years.

‘G’ Winton Capital Award

Dr Leigh Fletcher, who currently holds a Glasstone Science Fellowship at the University of Oxford, receives the Winton Capital Award for geophysics.

He has carried out work on the thermal structure, composition and seasonal change of Saturn’s atmosphere using data from the Composite Infrared Spectrometer on board the Cassini spacecraft.

Leigh’s work includes a Science paper on the Saturn polar hot spots, including how one feature (the ‘polar hexagon’) appears in the Saturnian troposphere but not the lower stratosphere. This and following work is regarded as the definitive study of Saturn’s atmospheric structure at infrared wavelengths.

Darwin Lecturer (A)

The Darwin Lecturer for 2011 will be Professor Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, recognising his pioneering work in the interdisciplinary field of particle physics and cosmology, a field he developed in order to study the earliest moments of the universe, dark matter and dark energy.

Whitrow Lecturer (A)

The 2011 Whitrow Lecturer will be Professor Alex Vilenkin of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, Massachusetts, in the USA, in recognition of his innovative work in cosmology, including eternal inflation, the creation of the universe from nothing, cosmic strings and the possible existence of other universes.

Harold Jeffreys Lecturer (G)

Dr Lyndsay Fletcher of the University of Glasgow will give the 2011 Harold Jeffreys Lecture, in recognition of her work as a world-renowned and highly cited solar physicist, who specialises in solar flares, active regions on the Sun and particle acceleration.

Honorary Fellows

The RAS may honour any person eminent in the fields of astronomy or geophysics by election as an Honorary Fellow of the Society. This is typically in recognition of services to astronomical and geophysical sciences such as distinguished leadership of a school, observatory or laboratory; outstanding services to national or international scientific organizations; exceptionally important work in editing scientific publications; influential work in education and public outreach in these sciences; or specially outstanding distinguished work in the history of these sciences.
Honorary Fellows - Astronomy:

• Professor Beatriz Barbuy of the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil
• Dr Christine Jones of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA
• Professor Jan Palous of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

Honorary Fellows - Geophysics:

• Professor Siegfried Bauer, University of Graz, Austria
• Professor Margaret Kivelson, UCLA, California, USA
• Professor Saku Tsuneta, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Further information

More information on RAS Medals and Awards and past recipients is available at


Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Notes for editors

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.