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RAS Honours Outstanding Astronomers and Geophysicists

Last Updated on Monday, 22 March 2010 21:14
Published on Monday, 22 March 2010 21:14
The Royal Astronomical Society, the UK’s voice for professional astronomers and geophysicists, today announced the recipients of the Society’s medals and awards for 2010. The prizes honour individuals and groups who have made an outstanding contribution to astronomy and geophysics and will be given out at the 2010 National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2010) to be held in Glasgow between the 12th and the 16th of April.

Royal Astronomical Society Press Release
Ref: RAS PN 10/02
7th January 2010


The Royal Astronomical Society, the UK’s voice for professional astronomers and geophysicists, today announced the recipients of the Society’s medals and awards for 2010. The prizes honour individuals and groups who have made an outstanding contribution to astronomy and geophysics and will be given out at the 2010 National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2010) to be held in Glasgow between the 12th and the 16th of April.

Professor Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society congratulated the medal and prize winners. “Our awards recognise the extraordinary impact of astronomers, space scientists and geophysicists, in the UK and all over the world. The scientists, young and old alike, are current and future leaders in their fields and each and every one of them should be incredibly proud of their achievements.”

The Society’s highest honour is the Gold Medal. One is awarded annually for extraordinary achievement in astronomy and another for the same in geophysics.

This year the Gold Medal for Astronomy is awarded to Professor Douglas Gough of the University of Cambridge. Professor Gough has played an internationally leading role over more than four decades, making seminal contributions to our understanding of stellar astrophysics. Early in his career he recognised that the observed oscillations of the Sun’s surface (so-called helioseismology) could be used to probe the solar interior, a technique used to good effect by the space-based Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the ground-based Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG).

Professor Gough then applied the same technique to other stars, coining the term ‘astroseismology’, and allowing astronomers an insight into their interior. For both the Sun and other stars, he understood that their structure was more complex than previously assumed.

Alongside his research work, Professor Gough is described as a truly inspiring teacher who has made extensive contributions to education and public outreach.

The Gold Medal for Geophysics is awarded to the internationally renowned geophysicist Professor John Woodhouse of the University of Oxford. Over many years, Professor Woodhouse has developed our theoretical understanding of the Earth’s interior and crucially then used this to make new discoveries about our planet. Early in his career, he found an error in the way oscillations of the Earth’s interior were being calculated, based on a misunderstanding of the boundaries in the internal structure of the planet. The computational algorithm he developed as a result is now a standard tool in seismology.

Together with Adam Dziewonski, Professor Woodhouse also produced some of the first believable maps of the terrestrial interior. These proved crucial to our later understanding of the thermal and mineral structure of the Earth.

The Herschel Medal is awarded to Professor James Hough of the University of Hertfordshire for his world-leading contribution to astronomy in astronomical polarimetry (where scientists measure the orientation of oscillations in light and other electromagnetic waves). He is an instrument builder, observational astronomer and research leader working on specific projects and facilities for observatories including the Anglo-Australian Observatory and Subaru and Gemini on Hawaii.

Professor Hough’s work includes interstellar gas and dust (nebulae), active nuclei of galaxies and young stellar objects. He has also taken a special interest in the role astronomical polarimetry can play in the search for extraterrestrial life by using the polarimetric signal of various biological markers.

The Chapman Medal is awarded to Professor Bernard Roberts of the University of St Andrews for his pioneering work in the field of magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) waves in the complex atmosphere of the Sun and other stars. MHD theory describes the movement of electrically conduction fluids, including the plasmas found around stars.

In the 1970s Professor Roberts published a series of papers that established a solid mathematical model for MHD waves, work which came to fruition two decades later when the waves were observed in the Sun’s atmosphere by the SOHO and Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) space observatories. His work also laid the foundations for the development of the new field of magneto-seismology, where the MHD waves are used as a diagnostic tool for stellar atmospheres.

The Jackson-Gwilt Medal is awarded to Professor Craig Mackay of the University of Cambridge for his long-term outstanding work on astronomical instrumentation. Professor Mackay works on Charge-Coupled Devices (CCDs), the dominant detector in visible light astronomy and attached to virtually every major optical telescope. He has developed CCDs to the point where by 2007 their use in overcoming the atmospheric turbulence that affects ground-based telescopes allowed them to compete with the Hubble Space Telescope. Professor Mackay’s work has sought to integrate the best detector performance with the optical architecture of telescopes with the aim of maximising their capability.

The Fowler Prize for astronomy is awarded to Dr Barbara Ercolano of University College London and the University of Cambridge. From her time as a PhD student, Dr Ercolano developed and continues to work on the MOCASSIN code, one of the most important astrophysical tools to have been created in the last decade. MOCASSIN is used to describe the transfer of electromagnetic radiation (including visible and infrared light) in a variety of gas and dust environments (nebulae), from star-forming regions to supernova remnants.

The Fowler Prize for geophysics is awarded to Dr Ineke de Moortel of the University of St Andrews. Despite being an ‘early career’ young scientist, Dr Moortel is already acknowledged as a world expert in MHD waves in the solar corona (coronal seismology) where she has made fundamental discoveries such as the presence of oscillations on 3-5 minute timescales. She has also already made a significant impact in a number of other research areas including magnetic reconnection and Alfven waves.

The Winton Capital prize in astronomy is awarded to Dr Elizabeth R. Stanway of the University of Bristol for her work on distant star-forming galaxies. Dr Stanway discovered that these galaxies are young, largely without dust and less numerous than expected. She also pioneered the detection of otherwise dark galaxies through their radio and sub-mm emission, extending the census of galaxies available for study.

The Winton Capital prize in geophysics is awarded to Dr David Robinson of the University of Oxford. Dr Robinson started his research career as an undergraduate, analysing a large Indian Ocean earthquake. During his PhD, he looked at the 2004 Boxing Day Sumatra earthquake that led to the tsunami, discovering a relationship between the shape of the ocean floor and the earthquake. He later analysed the 2001 Tibet earthquake, showing that it ruptured at a speed of nearly 6 km per second.

The Award for Service to Astronomy is given to Dr Francisco Sanchez of the Instituto de Astrofisica Canarias (IAC). During work in temporary buildings on Tenerife in the 1960s, he recognised the extraordinary quality of the night sky in the Canary Islands and how they could be the site of a permanent astronomical observatory. By his retirement, he had founded the IAC on Tenerife and La Palma, with more than 60 participating institutions from 18 countries and seen it become one of Europe’s leading scientific institutions.

The Award for Service to Geophysics is given to Dr Frank Lowes of Newcastle University for his contribution to geomagnetism. Dr Lowes constructed the first physical model of the ‘geodynamo’ in an effort to understand the generation of the Earth’s magnetic field. In the 20 years since his retirement he has continued his prolific work, helping to shape the 2000 International Geomagnetic Reference Field or IGRF, the standard description of the terrestrial magnetic field but also making many other less visible contributions above and beyond the call of duty.

The Group Achievement Award for Astronomy is given to the SuperWASP team, the UK collaboration that has so far detected 18 planets in orbit around stars other than the Sun (extrasolar planets or exoplanets). SuperWASP is a consortium of 8 academic institutions: the University of Cambridge, the IAC, the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes, the University of Keele, the University of Leicester, the Open University, Queen’s University Belfast and St Andrew’s University. SuperWASP uses two clusters of 8 cameras, one on La Palma and one in South Africa, watching for characteristic dips in the brightness of stars as planets pass in front of them. Despite their modest resources, the team have made a world-class contribution to exoplanet science.

The Group Achievement Award for Geophysics is given to the CHIANTI consortium, the team of scientists who have developed the ‘Atomic Database for Spectroscopic Diagnostics of Astrophysical Plasmas.’ This is a powerful tool for scientists who use the dispersion of light by wavelength (spectroscopy) to measure the properties of astronomical objects, including their composition, temperature, density and magnetic field strength. The analysis requires detailed knowledge of a large range of atomic elements. The CHIANTI consortium’s achievement is the establishment of a systematic, easy-to-use and publically available database to assist this process, with a huge impact on solar and stellar physics.

The Darwin Lecture will be given by Professor Carlos Frenk of the University of Durham. In the 1980s Professor Frenk was one of the originators of the Cold Dark Matter (CDM) model that accurately reproduces the large-scale distribution of galaxies across the Universe. He continues to be a world leader in his work on cosmological simulations and surveys of galaxies in our cosmic neighbourhood. Professor Frenk also has a tremendous enthusiasm for engaging the public in astronomy and cosmology and is therefore eminently qualified to deliver the 2010 Darwin Lecture.

The Harold Jeffreys Lecture will be given by Professor Stephen Miller of University College, London. Professor Miller combines research into the atmospheres of other planets (aeronomy) with a deep interest in the public communication of science. He played a leading role in identifying and characterising the H3+ hydrogen molecule in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) in the Solar system and more recently applied this technique to similar examples around other stars. Professor Miller is also highly active in public engagement work and so it is very fitting that he will give the 2010 Harold Jeffreys Lecture.

The following become Honorary Fellows of the RAS:


Professor Doug Lin (University of California, Santa Cruz and Beijing University, China)
Professor Richard Larson (Yale University, US)
Professor Conny Aerts (Katholieke Universitet Leuven, Belgium and Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands)


Dr Wlodek Kofman (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Grenoble, France)
Professor Domenico Giardini (Swiss Seismological Service, ETH Zurich, Switzerland)


Dr Robert Massey
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The Royal Astronomical Society

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 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

NAM 2010 at the University of Glasgow