Galaxy evolution pioneer wins major international prize

Professor Richard Ellis
Professor Richard Ellis

Professor Richard Ellis (UCL Physics & Astronomy) has been awarded the 2023 Gruber Cosmology Prize for his pioneering work both studying galactic evolution dating to the "cosmic dawn" and designing innovative instruments with which to do so.

Professor Ellis will receive a $500,000 USD (£ 399k) award for his contributions to the fields of galaxy evolution and developments in optical astronomy at a ceremony that will take place this summer in Marseille, France.

As an observer, Professor Ellis has redefined cosmology, the science that studies the growth of the universe. As the speed of light is finite, astronomers can trace the evolution of galactic structures in reverse, starting with the nearest and most mature and extending to the earliest and most primitive. Over the decades Professor Ellis has repeatedly led surveys of galaxies farther and farther, earlier and earlier across the cosmic landscape.

As "the leading authority on galaxy evolution," as one Gruber nominator called him, Professor Ellis has for decades been a fixture on astronomical projects requiring deep probes. In the mid-1990s he was the sole Europe-based member on the committee to outline the scientific goals for what was then the Next Generation Space Telescope and is now the James Webb Space Telescope. He was a natural fit for the Supernova Cosmology Project, one of the two teams that discovered evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Professor Ellis, who last year was awarded the Royal Medal A from the Royal Society, was also the principal investigator on the 2012 Hubble Ultra Deep Field campaign, which provided the first census of star-forming galaxies less than a billion years after the Big Bang.

As Ellis’s observations have taken him farther and farther across the universe into realms that were previously inaccessible, he has found himself needing to adopt or invent new tools.

One challenge was to observe the light from distant galaxies. To do this, Professor Ellis was one of the first astronomers to use massive galaxy clusters as "gravitational lenses" that magnify the otherwise inaccessible light "behind" them.

Realising the challenges of efficiently studying faint galaxies, the astrophysics professor has devoted much of his career to promoting innovative instruments. He devised, funded, and oversaw the development of several forms of spectrographs that allow astronomers to study gas compositions in the earliest star-forming galaxies. In turn, those instruments have helped other cosmologists make discoveries about the fundamental nature of the early universe.

Professor Ellis said: "I’m honoured to receive this distinguished life-time award from the Gruber Foundation, particularly as many of its earlier laureates are my personal heroes. I’ve been privileged to live during a golden era in observational astronomy where technological progress has enabled amazing discoveries.

"I thank all my colleagues over the years, including my many former graduate students who have helped me in my scientific adventure to uncover how galaxies formed and evolved."

As the Gruber Foundation described, Professor Ellis’s dual proficiency in observation and instrumentation would alone make him an anomaly among astrophysicists. That his contributions in both areas have proved revolutionary might well make him unique.

Professor Ellis will receive the award as well as a gold laureate pin at a ceremony that will take place in July at the ’Shedding New Light on the First Billion Years of the Universe’ conference organized by the Galaxies, Etoiles et Cosmologie (GECO) team of the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique of Marseille in France.


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