STUDY OF QUAKING STARS WINS RAS PRIZE
A study that will help give astronomers unique insight into the way hot stars work inside has proved rewarding for Dr Richard Townsend. On 13th November he will receive the Royal Astronomical Society prize for an outstanding doctoral thesis, a one-thousand-pound prize sponsored jointly by Cambridge University Press and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). He will also give an invited talk to the Royal Astronomical Society on his prize-winning work, under the title "Stars and Violins".
Dr Townsend completed his PhD in 1997 at University College, London, where he was supervised by Professor Ian Howarth. In December, he will return there to take up a research appointment.
The topic of Dr Townsend's doctoral research was 'asteroseismology' - the study of waves travelling at high speed through certain stars, rather like earthquake waves travel through planet Earth. The nature of these stellar waves is influenced by the structure inside the star in the same way that the quality of sound waves made by a musical instrument depends on how the particular instrument is constructed.
The waves in a star slightly alter its observed colour and brightness. By creating computer simulations of the physical processes behind these waves, which can then be matched with observations, Dr Townsend has helped open the way for astronomers to probe deep into the interior of hot stars. "No other technique has the same potential to allow us to 'look' beneath the surface of stars" he commented.
Dr Townsend first became interested in astronomy at a very early age, influenced, he recalls, by a book from his parents, his grandfather's small telescope and an addiction to science fiction stories. Doing research in asteroseismology, he says, has been fun. "I guess it's the thrill of sitting down with some observations and a computer, then attempting to understand what's going on inside a massive, phenomenally hot ball of gas so far away that the light we're getting now left the star's surface back when Isaac Newton was just formulating his law of gravity. To me, it's the ultimate in detective games!"
After completing his PhD, Dr Townsend spent seven months with Voluntary Service Overseas, teaching physics in a small village in Ghana. He is currently working at Reuters Ltd before returning to astronomical research at University College in December. He graduated in 1994 with a first class degree in physics from the University of Oxford, where he was at New College. Before going to Oxford, he was a pupil at Sherborne School, from 1986 to 1991.
The prize awarded to Dr Townsend has been sponsored by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and by Cambridge University Press. For PPARC, Dr Robin Clegg said, "PPARC is delighted to have sponsored this prize, which promotes scientific excellence in research and draws the attention of a wide audience to some of the latest developments in astronomy". The astronomy publisher at Cambridge University Press, Dr Simon Mitton, said "We are delighted to be associated with the Royal Astronomical Society through his prize, which recognises the remarkable talents shown by the younger members of the professional astronomy community."
PPARC, which is government funded, supports research, education, and projects to promote greater public understanding of astronomy, space science and particle physics. It provides money to give Britain's astronomers access to world-class telescopes in the Canary Islands, Hawaii, Australia and (soon) in Chile, and for the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, based in Edinburgh.
Cambridge University Press is the world leader in publishing for amateur and professional astronomers. Its books cover a wide range of topics in planetary science, space exploration, astronomy and astrophysics.
Dr Townsend will give his talk and receive his prize at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in the Scientific Societies Lecture Theatre, Savile Row, London W1, on Friday 13th November 1998. The meeting begins at 4 p.m. and Dr Townsend will be the first speaker. Media representatives are welcome to attend.
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