Richard Ellis awarded 2020 Michael Faraday Medal and Prize
5 November 2020
The Cosmoparticle Initiative congratulates Richard Ellis for winning the prestigious award from the Institute of Physics, acknowledging his lifelong work in astrophysics.
Cosmoparticle Initiative Steering Group member Richard Ellis has been awarded the Institute of Physics 2020 Michael Faraday Gold Medal and Prize for outstanding and sustained contributions in experimental physics. It reflects his sustained contributions to astrophysics in a career spanning 50 years.
Q. Do you recall when you first became interested in space, what was it that captured your imagination as a young child?
I decided I wanted to become an astronomer when I was six. I loaned a book from my public library about two small children who went to visit their uncle who had a telescope. He showed them the moon, planets and other wonders of the night sky. I realised at that young age there was a universe up there waiting to be explored. The book was written by Patrick Moore and, forty years later when I appeared on his television programme “The Sky at Night”, I told him how it inspired me and he sent me his personal copy. Later, I built my own 4-inch reflecting telescope and, dodging the rain in Wales, made my own observations of the stars and planets.
Q. Was anyone a particular inspiration to you?
Well, I grew up in remote part of North Wales so didn’t meet a professional scientist until I went to university. There was no internet nor any local astronomical societies so all inspiration came from books and “The Sky at Night.” My school teachers were supportive of course. In primary school, the headmaster often referred to me as `our astronomer’ and all my friends knew this was what I wanted to become.
Q. When did you decide to make Cosmology your career?
As an undergraduate in what was then the Department of Astronomy at UCL (1968-71) we were required to do a final year mini-research project and I chose the topic of “Quasar Absorption Lines.” At the time there was an ongoing debate as to whether this absorption occurred in the atmospheres of quasars or in clouds of intergalactic gas along the line of sight. I got thoroughly absorbed in this project and spent all my free time reading articles in UCL’s main library. This got me really excited about pursuing research in extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.
Q. Looking back to those early first days in the field, what was your research passion?
Observing has always been my passion. There’s nothing like the excitement (and apprehension) of entering the dome of a large telescope as the sun sets and wondering what discoveries might be made. I still get that thrill today even though we’re increasingly encouraged to observe remotely via the internet.
Q. Your career has taken you to several different countries pursuing your research interests; did this pose any particular challenges?
After my undergraduate days, I’ve moved eight times working in six institutions in the UK, USA and Germany. It’s invigorating to move and work with new people, but it does take a year or more to settle in, learn the ropes and build up a new group. I have benefitted enormously from working in different cultural environments. It has taught me to be patient and accept new ways of doing things. I particularly enjoyed my time in the USA. I was inspired by the `can-do’ and `think big’ attitudes of American astronomers, the enthusiasm of bright young students at Caltech and the remarkable opportunities available with the giant twin Keck telescopes in Hawaii. The only downside of moving frequently is that, in terms of local familiarity and connections with other fellow academics, one never catches up with those who have stayed there throughout their careers.
Q. What have you found most exciting about your work?
Without question, it’s making a unique discovery with a telescope in real time. It doesn’t happen very frequently but it’s inspirational, particularly when it’s a team effort with a young student or postdoc. More often nowadays we are undertaking ambitious surveys which can take many nights or even years of observations and painstaking analyses afterwards. But that can be rewarding as well.
Q. What has been most challenging?
Research has many ups and downs and it’s character building! When a proposal for a research grant or telescope time gets turned down, it can be disheartening, especially for young people building their careers. Even worse is cloudy nights! You compete to get precious observing time on one of the largest telescopes in the world but come back empty-handed. To go all the way to Australia or Hawaii (and I’ve been to the former over 70 times and the latter over a 100 times!) and be clouded out is so debilitating. My job as team leader is to maintain enthusiasm among my students during cloudy nights, usually by supplying a bottle of wine or two and providing constant encouragement.
Q. Looking back, which achievement are you most proud of?
Without question, pushing back the observational frontiers to larger redshifts and `look-back times.’ In 1979 I went to my first conference in the USA. It was held at UCLA and called `Objects at High Redshift’ and organised by Jim Peebles and the late George Abell. At that meeting, the highest redshift galaxy was at z=0.54! My colleagues and I designed and built a succession of multi-object spectrographs to undertake comprehensive surveys of distant galaxies as a means to chart galaxy evolution. In the 1980’s we conducted surveys to redshifts above z~1 and, later, when I moved to the USA, out to redshifts z~7. At UCL, using ESO’s VLT and ALMA, we have pushed to beyond a redshift z~9 when the universe was only 4% of its present age. Most recently, we have been able to determine the ages of stars in these early galaxies which provides a first, indirect, glimpse of when galaxies first emerged from darkness, a period euphemistically called `cosmic dawn.’
Q. How did you feel when you were awarded the CBE in 2008?
Honoured and a bit humbled of course. I was still in the USA and it’s quite unusual to get a CBE as a resident of another country. If I recall correctly, there were only two of us in that situation in 2008; the other guy was the bishop of Gibraltar! I’ll never forget the phone call from the UK Consul-General in Los Angeles. I was observing in Hawaii and his call at 10 am woke me up after a night on the telescope. I thought he wanted me to serve on a committee or something but he began “This call is one of the more pleasant aspects of my job.” The award itself was presented at Buckingham Palace by Prince Charles who asked me if I was an “intergalactic astronomer?!”
Q. What legacy do you feel you have left for young Cosmologists?
It’s exciting to be back at UCL and see the large surveys being undertaken by my colleagues, for example using the Dark Energy Survey (DES) and those planned with impressive upcoming facilities. I’ve been lucky to have been involved in early demonstrations of all three of the now familiar techniques for probing dark energy. I was a founding member of Saul Perlmutter’s team which jointly discovered dark energy in the late 1990s using distant Type Ia supernovae. My Cambridge PhD student, David Bacon, was the leader of one of three teams who first detected cosmic shear – weak lensing from large scale structure. Finally, I was founding co-PI of the 2 degree field galaxy redshift survey which, alongside SDSS, first located the baryonic acoustic oscillation scale in the local universe. It’s gratifying to see how new statistical techniques and progress in instrumentation, both prominent at UCL, are advancing the opportunities.
Q. And looking forward, what next for you Richard?
Well, in the mid 1990s, while still in Cambridge, I was the only European-based astronomer to serve on a NASA committee which produced a report “HST and Beyond” that proposed what has now become the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). 25 years later, it is finally on track to be launched October 2021! JWST has the capability to directly image and secure spectroscopic verification of the earliest galaxies seen in the first 300 million years. Right now, my research team is devoting most of our time writing proposals for this next big space telescope. Fingers crossed it works and that we can continue pushing back the frontiers!