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Astronomy Prize Winners Named

Last Updated on Sunday, 02 May 2010 19:28
Published on Friday, 25 February 2005 00:00


Two former research students are each 1000 pounds better off after winning a prize from the Royal Astronomical Society for an outstanding doctoral thesis. Dr Stephen Hancock and Dr John Sleath, who both did their doctoral research at the University of Cambridge, are the first winners of the new Royal Astronomical Society Astronomy Prize, which is sponsored jointly by Cambridge University Press and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). They will receive their prizes and make short presentations about their work at the meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London on Friday 12th December 1997.



Stephen Hancock was a research student at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge, where his supervisor was Dr Anthony Lasenby. He studied the radiation left over from the 'Big Bang' when the universe began - what is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. This radiation gives astronomers an insight into what the universe was like soon after it formed and before there were any galaxies. It is very nearly uniform all through the universe, but the seeds of present-day galaxies are imprinted in the microwave background as tiny variations, though they are very difficult to detect amidst the radiation from our own Galaxy and from the Earth itself.

Dr Hancock, with colleagues, used the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge to make the first picture of fluctuations in the background radiation caused by a nearby cluster of galaxies. He was able to use the observations to estimate the age of the universe at 15 billion years. He went on to work with researchers from Jodrell Bank using special telescopes in the Canary Islands to distinguish the tiny fluctuations in the background radiation and see how they fit with theories about what happened to the universe in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Dr Hancock was elected a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, but has recently left to embark on a new career with an investment bank in the City of London. "Pursuing my astronomy research has been an intensely satisfying experience, and astronomy is still an important part of my life" he said. "I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved in several new discoveries. I am delighted and honoured to have been chosen as a recipient of the RAS Astronomy Prize."



John Sleath studied for his PhD under Dr Paul Alexander at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory at the University of Cambridge. His research was concerned with how the formation of stars takes place throughout a galaxy, and how that relates to the beautiful spiral structure that many galaxies have. He built on an idea that treats star formation as a process that propagates through a galaxy rather like fire spreading through a forest. Large stars in one region of a galaxy trigger the birth of a new generation of stars in neighbouring regions when they explode as supernovae and send shock waves through the gas and dust of interstellar space. John and his colleagues were able to reproduce what is known about the shape of our own Milky Way Galaxy, as well as the whole range of different kinds of spiral galaxies observed in the universe.

After completing his PhD in Cambridge, Dr Sleath moved to the University of Wales at Cardiff, where he worked with Dr Alistair Nelson. Recently, he has given up his astronomy career in favour of research of a different kind - on the staff of the Bank of England. "I have been interested in astronomy since about the age of ten" Dr Sleath said, "and am delighted and honoured to have been awarded an RAS Astronomy Prize". He added "Whilst I was sorry to be leaving astrophysics, I am now able to devote most of my time to research, something I really enjoy, - albeit on a very different subject!"


Contact Information

Contact Dr Stephen Hancock through Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Public Relations Officer (see details at head of this release).


Dr John Sleath may be contacted directly by telephone, on: 0171-601-3658 (day), or 0181-579-0222 (evenings). 

Issued by:
Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Public Relations Officer
Phone: Cambridge ((0)1223) 564914
FAX: Cambridge ((0)1223) 572892
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