The University of Virginia announced today that UVa astronomer John Hawley and former UVa astronomer Steven Balbus, who is now Savilian Professor of Astronomy in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford, have been named co-winners of the 2013 Shaw Prize in Astronomy. This is the 10th annual Prize, each given in three distinct categories:
The Shaw Prize in Astronomy is awarded in equal shares to
Professor Steven A Balbus, Savilian Professor of Astronomy, University of Oxford, UK and Professor John F Hawley, Associate Dean for the Sciences, and VITA Professor and Chair of Department of Astronomy, University of Virginia, USA:
for their discovery and study of the magnetorotational instability, and for demonstrating that this instability leads to turbulence and is a viable mechanism for angular momentum transport in astrophysical accretion disks.
The Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine is awarded in equal shares to Professor Jeffrey C Hall, Visiting Professor, The University of Maine, USA; Professor Michael Rosbash, Professor of Biology and Investigator of HHMI, Brandeis University, USA and Professor Michael W Young,Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor, Rockefeller University, USA
for their discovery of molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms.
The Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences is awarded to Professor David L Donoho, Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of the Humanities and Sciences, and Professor of Statistics, Stanford University, USA
for [their] profound contributions to modern mathematical statistics and in particular the development of optimal algorithms for statistical estimation in the presence of noise and of efficient techniques for sparse representation and recovery in large data-sets.
The award will be presented on September 23, 2013 during a ceremony in Hong Kong, when the laureates will address the Shaw Prize selection committee.
This international award, which includes a gold medal, is given annually to those who are “furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilization.”
Magnetorotational instability is now integral to the standard theory of black hole systems activity.
Professor Balbus was a member of the UVa faculty from 1985 to 2004, and according to UVa Today, after they had made their accretion discovery, they had joked about whether they would buy their tuxedos or rent them, should they ever be recognized with a prize. Professor Hawley acknowledged that he actually does own a tuxedo, “but not a very good one,” and that he might now purchase a better one for the occasion, rather than to appear in “the usual astronomer attire – blue jeans and sneakers.”
UVa Senior News Officer Fariss Samarrai explains further:
Hawley and Balbus are being recognized for their groundbreaking discovery in the early 1990s of the mechanism – magnetorotational instability – that accounts for the process of accretion, a widespread phenomenon in astrophysics. It plays a key role in star formation, mass transfer between binary stars, and black hole X-ray binaries, and contributes to the growth of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. Astrophysical systems powered by accretion are some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, including quasars, active galactic nuclei and gamma ray bursts.
Matter that falls toward a compact star or black hole has too much angular momentum (“spin”) to fall directly in, and instead settles into a disk orbiting the central body. Subsequent infall, or accretion, requires a mechanism, such as turbulence, to transfer angular momentum outward through the disk. Prior to the discovery, astronomers were certain that gases orbiting black holes were turbulent, but could not say why, as all hydrodynamic analysis showed the orbits to be stable. Balbus and Hawley’s discovery was that magnetic fields make the crucial difference; magnetorotational instability makes the orbits unstable.
Their subsequent work on modeling its consequences in disks solved a fundamental problem in astrophysics and transformed the field of accretion disk theory.
To make their discovery, Hawley and Balbus, then working together at UVa, combined mathematical analysis with detailed computer simulations of the behavior of turbulent magnetized gases.
Mr. Samarrai also notes that this Prize was established by Hong Kong film producer and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, who is now 105 years of age. Professor Hawley came to UVa from Cal Tech, but remembers having watched late-night kung fu movies, as a grad student at the University of Illinois, that were produced by Mr. Shaw; and notes that he “couldn’t have imagined that someday his future foundation would give me an award.”
Having become a full professor in 1999, John Hawley served from 2006-2012 as chair of the Department of Astronomy, and he is presently the associate dean for science in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Steven Balbus and John Hawley are co-authors of “The Introduction to Accretion Disks in Astrophysics,” published in 2010; and John Hawley is the author of “Foundations of Modern Cosmology.”