UK gravitational waves expert honoured in annual awards for astronomy

12 January 2018

James Hough

Professor James Hough
(Credit: University of Glasgow)

A number of STFC-supported researchers have been honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in its annual awards for astronomy and geophysics – including Professor James Hough from the University of Glasgow, who has been awarded the RAS’s highest accolade in recognition of his eminent role in gravitational wave science.

In addition Professor Wayne Holland, Project Scientist at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, has been awarded the RAS’s 2018 Jackson-Gwilt Medal.

The Society's highest honour is its Gold Medal, and its past winners include Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Arthur Eddington and Stephen Hawking. It was first awarded in 1824, and since 1964 two have been awarded each year: one for astronomy and one for geophysics.

This year the winner of the Gold Medal for astronomy is Professor James Hough, emeritus holder of the Kelvin Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Hough received the accolade for his seminal contribution to the science of gravitational waves. These disturbances in the curvature of space-time were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 but were first detected a century later by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), emanating from the merger of two massive black holes. This discovery gave astronomers an entirely new tool for studying the universe.

Speaking of this honour, Professor Hough said: “I am absolutely delighted with the award, which of course reflects the work of many colleagues worldwide. It also emphasises the fact that multi-messenger astronomy involving gravitational waves is becoming a reality now.”

His colleague Professor Sheila Rowan, Director of the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research and one of his fellow UK leads on LIGO, said: “I am absolutely delighted to see Jim recognised by the RAS with their highest award – his contributions to the field of gravitational waves have been many and varied and have shaped at a deep level the laser interferometers around the globe that form our network of gravitational wave observatories.”

Over four decades, Professor Hough developed many of the key technologies and experimental techniques that made this first detection of gravitational waves possible. The detection required extremely precise measurements of tiny signals embedded in a very noisy environment. This was achieved using laser interferometers capable of measuring shifts of less than a thousandth of the diameter of a proton (one of the particles that makes up the nucleus of an atom), or about a million million millionth of a metre across. Professor Hough, working as part of the STFC-supported UK/German GEO600 team, developed sophisticated mirror suspensions that enabled LIGO to reach the sensitivity required for the discovery.

UK ATC’s Professor Holland has been awarded the Jackson-Gwilt Medal for his substantial contributions to the evolution of submillimetre astronomy, and in particular his leadership of SCUBA-2, the world's most powerful submillimetre camera.

Read more about Professor Holland’s achievement here.

The 2018 Group Achievement Award is awarded to the Planck Team. The Planck team has achieved an extraordinary level of precision in measuring the oldest light in the universe, breaking new ground in areas ranging from fundamental physics, galactic astronomy and cosmology.

By building such a powerful and sensitive space telescope to create state-of-the-art maps of the microwave sky, the Planck team has made the most precise determination of the age, composition and shape of the universe. STFC has funded the UK-based researchers who have exploited the scientific data yielded by Planck.

The full list of STFC-supported or related honourees include:

Astronomy and geophysics awards:

Gold Medal (A): Professor James Hough, University of Glasgow.

Chapman Medal (G): Professor Emma Bunce, University of Leicester – she has made huge contributions to the success of several space missions focussed on the characterisation of planets in our own solar system, notably the  Cassini mission to Saturn.  Most recently she has been enabling UK involvement in the soon-to-be-launched ESA Bepi Colombo mission to Mercury and the ESA exploration mission to Jupiter’s icy moons, JUICE.

Herschel Medal (A): Professor Tom Marsh, University of Warwick - together with colleagues at Warwick and Sheffield, he has led efforts to develop new instruments, facilities and software, notably in relation to ULTRACAM and ERC-funded HiPERCAM studying the evolution of stars, both also supported by STFC.

Jackson-Gwilt Medal (A): Professor Wayne Holland, University of Edinburgh.

RAS Group Achievement Award (A): Planck team.

RAS Service Award (A): Professor Mark Cropper, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London – noted for his leadership and critical roles in the realisation and support for the ESA Gaia mission, mapping our own galaxy, and in the preparation for the ESA Euclid mission which will explore the nature of Dark Energy, both of which have received significant STFC support.

Education and outreach awards:

Annie Maunder Medal: Professor Helen Mason, University of Cambridge – former STFC Public Engagement Fellow who has been instrumental in bringing the excitement of solar physics to the wider public and for her work with the ESA-JAXA solar mission Hinode.

The full list of winners can be viewed at the Royal Astronomical Society website.

Media contact

Jake Gilmore
STFC Media Manager
Mob: +44 (0)7970 994 586

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. Astronomers and space scientists at universities around the UK are some of the world’s best, working on answers to these and other questions identified in our science challenges.

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 3,900 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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