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RAS honours leading astronomers and geophysicists

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 December 2012 17:05
Published on Friday, 13 January 2012 16:01

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) today announced the winners of the Society's medals and awards for 2012. These prizes honour leading figures that have made an outstanding contribution to astronomy (designated 'A') and geophysics (designated 'G') and recognise individuals and groups in the UK and around the world.

gold medalThe Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical SocietyThe awards will be presented at the 2012 National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2012) that will take place from 27-30 March in Manchester.

Professor Roger Davies, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, congratulated the medal and award recipients on their achievements. "For nearly two hundred years the Society has recognised the achievements of the very best scientific researchers with medals and awards. The extraordinarily talented men and women who will receive prizes this year are amongst the ranks of the leading astronomers, space scientists and geophysicists who continue to shape the way we think about both our own planet and the wider universe."


Gold Medal (A): Professor Andy Fabian


The Society's highest honours are the Gold Medals for astronomy and geophysics, with one of these available for award annually for extraordinary work in each discipline.

This year the Gold Medal for Astronomy is awarded to Andy Fabian OBE FRS, Royal Society Professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge and vice-Master of Darwin College, Cambridge. Professor Fabian is recognised for his exceptional contribution to astrophysics over more than four decades. He is best known for his work on black holes and on the gas found in the cores of clusters of galaxies, both of which are strong sources of X-rays.

Beyond this, Professor Fabian has examined the origin of high-energy radiation throughout the Universe and contributed to many other areas of X-ray astronomy. He is the author of more than 850 peer reviewed papers that have attracted more than 44000 citations.

Professor Fabian's contribution to the broader astronomical community has been exemplary, from mentoring early career scientists to working as editor-in-chief for the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. From 2008 to 2010 he was President of the RAS, representing UK astronomers and geophysicists, during a period of severe and growing financial pressure, with distinction and strong leadership.

The recipient of numerous international awards and prizes, Professor Fabian received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2006 in recognition of his services to science.

For all these reasons Professor Fabian is awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Gold Medal (G): Professor John Brown


Professor John Brown, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland and former Regius Chair of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow is awarded the 2012 RAS Gold Medal for Geophysics.

Early in his career Professor Brown's 'collisional thick-target model' led to a new paradigm for the production of X-rays by electrons in solar flares. Identifying the mechanism of electron acceleration remains a central and unsolved problem in solar activity and his seminal work on deriving the accelerated electron distributions from their observable X-ray emission is still the landmark paper in the field, cited over 600 times.

His leading role in NASA's award-winning Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) mission is testament to his impact in high-energy solar physics, where his work encompasses the interpretation of the properties of X-ray signatures, the modelling of particle acceleration and transport in the solar atmosphere and the analysis of the response of the flaring solar atmosphere.

Throughout his distinguished and productive research career John has collaborated widely, and - especially in his role as Astronomer Royal for Scotland - has inspired the astronomical passions of thousands of people across the UK and overseas through presentations, in person and on television and radio.

For his outstanding work in research, leadership and outreach Professor Brown is awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Herschel Medal: Dr Mike Irwin


Dr Mike Irwin of the University of Cambridge is awarded the Herschel Medal, which recognises investigations of outstanding merit in observational astrophysics.

Dr Irwin is known worldwide for the leading role he plays in processing of digital optical and infra-red survey data. Since entering research in 1980 he transformed the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit (CASU) into a powerhouse, including handling the majority of new generation surveys from the European Southern Observatory. In 1985 he published an automated method for analysing images where objects are crowded together, the genesis of much of today's image detection and analysis.

Alongside this major technical achievement Dr Irwin has made a series of important contributions to science, for example the1994 co-discovery of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, an object being disrupted by and heading for a future collision with the Milky Way. This led on to galaxies being discovered in the constellations of Sextans, Cetus and Antlia, with a further 15 found in the last 5 years.

Over the last 25 years, his immense body of work has helped to shape modern astronomy and for this Dr Irwin is awarded the 2012 Herschel Medal.


Chapman Medal: Professor Andrew Fazakerley


Professor Andrew Fazakerley of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory receives the Chapman Medal, which recognises investigations of outstanding merit in solar-terrestrial physics.

Professor Fazakerley has played a leading role in the ESA Cluster science team since 1997. As Principal Investigator of the Plasma Electron and Current Experiment (PEACE), he and his team built, tested and integrated eight PEACE sensors on the four Cluster spacecraft and then two others for the Chinese Double Star mission.

The multi-point electron measurements yielded by the eight PEACE sensors have enabled very significant advances in our understanding of the terrestrial space plasma environment. He is included in the author list of over 300 publications, including papers on magnetic reconnection and flux transfer in the magnetosphere, auroral particle acceleration processes, the physics of the radiation belts, interactions between interplanetary current sheets and the Earth's bow shock, as well as serendipitous evidence of the crustal cracking of a distant neutron star.

Professor Fazakerley is awarded the RAS Chapman Medal in recognition of the sheer quality of the data coming from the sensors he developed, the team he leads and the outstanding results that have been and continue to be achieved, all of which have led to a significant contribution to our understanding of the magnetosphere of the Earth.


Jackson-Gwilt Medal: Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn


Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn of the University of Sydney receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal that acknowledges achievement in astronomical instrumentation or techniques; observational astronomy or research into the history of astronomy.

He led the world-renowned instrument science group at the Anglo-Australian Observatory, before becoming the Federation Fellow Professor of Physics at Sydney University. Professor Bland-Hawthorn has made many distinguished contributions to the field of astronomical instrumentation, authoring more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and major reviews in astrophysics, optics and physics journals.

During the 1990s he developed the 'nod and shuffle' technique for subtracting the influence of the background sky from optical fibre spectrographs (these disperse light from astronomical objects into a spectrum allowing analysis of properties from composition to temperature); invented a tuneable filter that allows very narrowband imaging over a wide range of wavelengths, something adopted at observatories all over the world; and most recently demonstrated a technique that suppresses the contamination of infrared spectra by emission lines from the Earth's atmosphere. This latter 'astrophotonic' technology promises to revolutionise infrared astronomy and forms the basis of prototype instruments that will see first light on the Australian Astronomical Telescope and Gemini North Telescope within the next two years.

For his many contributions to the development of novel astronomical instrumentation and his pioneering work on astrophotonic technology, Joss Bland-Hawthorn is awarded the Jackson-Gwilt medal.


RAS Group Award (A): UKIDSS


The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) project is awarded the RAS Group Award. The consortium behind the project began their work in 2005 and since that time has published more than 200 refereed papers. Significant science results from UKIDSS include the discovery of a quasar at a redshift of 7 (meaning that the light we detect from it left more than 13 billion years ago) and finding many examples of the new cool T-dwarf objects. Some of the latter are amongst the coolest astronomical objects known.

For the exemplary work in these and many other areas, the UKIDSS consortium receives the 2012 RAS 'A' Group Award.


RAS Service Award (A): Professor Paul Murdin


Professor Paul Geoffrey Murdin OBE receives the 2012 RAS award for service to astronomy.

He has made an outstanding contribution to role of astronomy in public life in three areas: as a popular author and broadcaster, as a leader of the Research Councils and as Treasurer of the RAS. In addition Professor Murdin has pursued a healthy research life largely focusing on high energy astrophysics and the properties of objects identified by early X-ray satellites, publishing more than 100 refereed papers.

Throughout his career he has attempted to communicate the excitement of astronomy to a wider audience through popular books; broadcasting in programmes like Radio 4's 'In our time', in frequent interviews on astronomical news stories, in appearances on the 'Sky at Night' and in numerous public lectures. His popularity has its roots in his clear thinking and ability to translate complex physics into everyday language.

Professor Murdin is a past President of the European Astronomical Society (1994-97), a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum (1990-2001), was Head of Operations at the Isaac Newton Group on La Palma (as Head of Operations 1981-87), became Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (1991-93) and then took leading roles in the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's Astronomy programme and the British National Space Centre.

As Treasurer of the Royal Astronomical Society Professor Murdin oversaw a growth in the Fellowship from about 2800, a level it had been at for some time, to 3500 at the end of his ten-year tenure. Supported by greater financial strength, the Society took on a wider advocacy role, representing the astronomical community more effectively to government, the public and the Research Councils.

Professor Murdin is visiting professor at Liverpool John Moores University and was awarded the OBE in 1988. The RAS Service Award is a richly deserved acknowledgement of his many years of work on behalf of the entire astronomical community.


Fowler Award (A): Dr Hiranya Peiris


Dr Hiranya Peiris of University College London receives the Fowler Award in recognition of her particularly noteworthy contribution to astronomy at an early stage of her research career.

Dr Peiris is one of the best of her generation working on the cosmology of the early universe. She has made very significant contributions to the WMAP Cosmic Microwave Background project, particularly concerning constraints on the inflationary models that describe the rapid expansion of the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang. In addition her contributions to astrophysics more broadly include the analysis of large scale structure data, the development of statistical methods and the field of Galactic structure.

She has been awarded many competitive post-doctoral fellowships (Fermi, Hubble, STFC Advanced Fellowship), became a Philip Leverhulme prize-winner in 2009 and has now been appointed to the Faculty of University College London. With her wide ranging interests and accomplishments across a broad range of cosmology and astrophysics, Dr Peiris is awarded the RAS Fowler Award.


Fowler Award (G): Dr Matthew Owens


Dr Matthew Owens of the University of Reading receives the Fowler Award in recognition of his particularly noteworthy contribution to geophysics at an early stage of his research career.

Dr Owens is an outstanding and prolific young scientist in the field of solar-terrestrial physics whose work has already had a major impact in revealing the secrets of the Sun's magnetic cycles. These results point to key factors controlling the variations in the output of particles and fields from the solar atmosphere that impinges on the Earth.

He is notable for a young researcher in terms of the breadth and depth of his research activity, making use of analytical and numerical models as well as observations, and tackling a wide range of important problems. He has produced an extensive body of highly-cited publications in prestigious journals; the international standing of Dr Owens' work is further evidenced by a number of significant review talks, as well as a strong network of collaborations with leading workers in the field.

Dr Owens' early research was mainly concerned with the global structure and dynamics of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) in the interplanetary medium. These massive eruptions of material and magnetic field from the Sun are known to cause major disturbances in the near-Earth space environment, and understanding their properties is of societal value, as well as being a major unsolved scientific problem.

With an impressive record of past performance and present creativity, Dr Owens is awarded the Fowler prize.


Winton Capital Award (A): Dr Tom Kitching


Dr Tom Kitching of the University of Edinburgh is given the 2012 Winton Capital Award for Astronomy, for a postdoctoral researcher, who completed their PhD no more than 5 years previously and whose career has shown the most promising development.

Dr Kitching, who now holds a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, contributes at all levels to research into weak gravitational lensing, from the details of shape measurement of galaxies, through development of sophisticated analysis tools, to leadership roles in ESA's forthcoming Euclid space mission that will map dark matter and investigate dark energy.

As a student, he helped to develop the new field of 3D weak lensing and with its inventor Professor Lance Miller is the co-creator of an algorithm that measures the distortion of galaxy images. As a result of his particular expertise he was invited to join the leading ground-based lensing survey (CFHTLenS) and the leading space-based survey (COSMOS, using the Hubble Space Telescope).

For these and many other achievements Tom Kitching is awarded the Winton Capital award.


Winton Capital Award (G): Dr Juliet Biggs


Dr Juliet Biggs of the University of Oxford is given the 2012 Winton Capital Award for Geophysics.

Dr Biggs is an outstanding young scientist in the field of satellite geodesy. Her research involves the use of Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) to study the physics of processes that deform the Earth's surface. During her PhD at Oxford, Dr Biggs pioneered a new method for determining strain around faults using InSAR in the challenging area of the Danali Fault in Alaska. High levels of vegetation and snow presented a technical difficulty, which led to a robust methodology for extracting slow strain rates from the data. InSAR practitioners worldwide are now adopting this approach.

After time at the University of Miami, Dr Biggs returned to Oxford, where she started a comprehensive study of volcanoes in East Africa and Latin America. She and her research team have now mapped deformation at hundreds of volcanoes. She has also looked at anthropological influences on ground deformation, including mining related subsidence and aquifer depletion.

Dr Biggs is a truly collegial scientist, who has collaborated with scientists at over 25 institutions. She is a great communicator and already has an impressive publication record. Since moving to Bristol she has established a thriving research group in the School of Earth Sciences. For these impressive accomplishments by someone who finished her PhD only 4 years ago, Dr Biggs receives the Winton Capital award.



George Darwin Lecturer: Professor Andrew Collier-Cameron


The 2012 George Darwin lecture will be given by Professor Andrew Collier-Cameron of the University of St Andrews.

Gerald Whitrow Lecturer: Professor Andrew Liddle


The 2012 Gerald Whitrow lecture will be given by Professor Andrew Liddle of the University of Sussex.

Harold Jeffreys Lecturer: Professor Bill Chaplin


The 2012 Harold Jeffreys lecture will be given by Professor Bill Chaplin of the University of Birmingham.


Honorary Fellowships


Honorary Fellowships are awarded to:

• Professor Robert Williams (President of the IAU)
• Professor Hiromoto Shibabashi (University of Tokyo)
• Professor Karl Menten (Max-Planck Institut fuer Radioastronomie, Bonn)
• Professor Robert Lin (University of California at Berkeley)
• Professor Hermann Opgenoorth (Swedish Institute of Space Physics)




RAS Awards, Medals and Prizes




Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
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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.

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