Archive for Breakthrough Prize

Breakthroughs, Beermats and the Bending of Light

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 6, 2019 by telescoper

I found out on the way home from Armagh yesterday that this year’s Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (worth $3,000,000) has been awarded to the team behind the Event Horizon Telescope which was featured in newspaper and magazines around the world in April this year and which I blogged about here. There are 347 members of the team so it amounts to an average of less than $9000 per person, but let me offer them all my sincerest congratulations!

Coincidentally, just before my talk at INAM2019 yesterday I noticed that the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium stocks these items:

I’m not sure they are intended to be used as beer mats but that’s what they look like! Anyway, I picked one up and showed it at the end of my talk. I was talking about the 1919 eclipse expeditions, which I have done rather a lot these days, and finished up by mentioning that the events of a hundred years ago ushered in a century of developments in relativistic astrophysics, including gravitational lensing, gravitational waves and of course the Event Horizon Telescope.

If you’re interested here are the slides I used for this (short) talk:

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A Breakthrough for a Bigot

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2018 by telescoper

You may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to Cambridge next year to take up a Lectureship. Yesterday I heard the news that Dr Wall (who is currently at Stanford) has been awarded a New Horizons Breakthrough Prize of $100,000. Three such prizes are awarded each year for outstanding early career researchers.

This is just a reminder that, when he isn’t doing theoretical physics, Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. For example, one piece included bigoted generalizations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often? The press release from Stanford does not say.

You can read his whole piece for yourself* and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

(*He’s deleted it, so I linked to an archived version…)

Some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private. He has himself chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that it’s acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

I just wonder whether the Breakthrough Prize would have been awarded to a person with outspoken racist or sexist views? And should prizes be awarded to people who are good at science regardless of attitudes that cast severe doubt on their ability or willingness to foster a spirit of inclusivity within which other scientists can flourish?

P.S. Note the diversity of the panel that made this award!

Breakthrough Prize for Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

I awoke this morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the award of a special Breakthrough Prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. To quote the press release:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell receives the Prize “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.” Pulsars are a highly magnetized, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

For the full citation and background information, see here.

The prize is not only prestigious but also substantial in cash terms: $3M no less. Jocelyn has made it clear however that she intends to use the money to set up a fund to encourage greater diversity in physics, through the Institute of Physics. That is a wonderful gesture, but if you know Jocelyn at all then you will not be at all surprised by it, as she is a person of enormous integrity who has for many years demonstrated a huge commitment to the cause of increasing diversity. I look forward to hearing more about how this initiative works out.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jocelyn said “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.” I agree, and not just because an open and inclusive environment is a good thing in itself (which it is) but also because the fewer barriers there are to entry for a particular field, the broader the pool of talent from which it can recruit.

P.S. What would you do if you won a prize of $3M?

P. P. S. If I had $3M to spend, I think I’d spend it on whatever would most annoy all the miserable twerps complaining on Twitter about what Jocelyn Bell Burnell is doing with her Breakthrough Prize money.

WMAP wins the 2018 Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 4, 2017 by telescoper

It’s very nice on a gloomy Monday morning to be able to share some exciting news and to congratulate so many friends and colleagues, for last night the 2018 Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics was awarded to the team who worked on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The citation reads:

For detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

The award, which is for the sizeable sum of $3 Million, will be shared among the 27 members of the WMAP team whose names I list here in full (team leaders are in italics):

Chris Barnes; Rachel Bean; Charles Bennett; Olivier Doré; Joanna Dunkley,;Benjamin M. Gold; Michael Greason; Mark Halpern; Robert Hill, Gary F. Hinshaw, Norman Jarosik, Alan Kogut, Eiichiro Komatsu, David Larson, Michele Limon, Stephan S. Meyer, Michael R. Nolta, Nils Odegard, Lyman Page, Hiranya V. Peiris, Kendrick Smith, David N. Spergel, Greg S. Tucker, Licia Verde, Janet L. Weiland, Edward Wollack, and Edward L. (Ned) Wright.

I know quite a few of these people personally, including Hiranya, Licia, Eiichiro, Joanna, Olivier and Ned, so it’s a special pleasure to congratulate them – and the other members of the team – on this well-deserved award.

Don’t spend all the money in the same shop!