Royal Astronomical Society recognition for two Oxford astrophysicists

10 January 2020

Two astrophysicists from Oxford’s Department of Physics have been awarded prestigious medals by the Royal Astronomical Society in the society's bicentenary year: Professor Rob Fender (left), Head of Astrophysics at Oxford and Visiting SKA Professor at the University of Cape Town, receives the Herschel medal while Professor Steve Balbus (right), Savillian Professor of Astronomy and Fellow of the Royal Society, is awarded the Eddington medal.

Seminal work

The Herschel medal is awarded for an outstanding contribution to observational astrophysics. It recognises Professor Fender's key contribution to understanding the connection between accretion and jet formation around accreting relativistic objects, such as black holes. The award is made largely for a single, seminal piece of work which has had a big impact on astrophysics, in this case: ‘Towards a unified model for black hole X-ray binary jets,’ by Rob Fender, Tomaso Belloni and Elena Gallo published in Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004.

This paper pieced together diverse observations from the radio and X-ray bands into a single unified empirical model which has been rigorously tested and refined in numerous subsequent papers by Rob and others around the world for nearly two decades. Furthermore, the model has been applied to and tested against other, related, objects, such as supermassive black holes in quasars and white dwarf binaries, with evidence that it is a represents a universal connection across all types of accreting objects.

Transient and variable radio emission

Professor Fender has continued to work in this area since the paper was published, but has also taken his expertise into the broader area of transient and variable radio emission from other times of extreme astrophysical phenomena, such as the tidal disruption of a star or the mergers of neutron star binaries and the associated gravitational wave bursts.

‘This medal is a great honour,’ commented Professor Fender. ‘The work I undertook with Drs Belloni and Gallo in Amsterdam in 2004, and many other brilliant collaborators since, has been proven to stand the test of time and really show something fundamental about how jet-like outflows connect to accretion processes.’

Outstanding merit

The Eddington medal, awarded to Professor Balbus, recognises investigations of outstanding merit in theoretical astrophysics specifically for a single outstanding area of work; Professor Balbus has revolutionised the theory of accreting systems and made fundamental contributions to the theory of stability, turbulence and transport in astrophysical fluids.

His career has spanned four decades working first in the United States then France and now here at Oxford, publishing numerous single and leading author papers. He has been honoured many times; perhaps most significantly winning the 2013 Shaw Prize (jointly with John Hawley). His name is now synonymous with the field of magnetorotational instability, or MRI, and he played a pivotal role in launching a whole new sub-field of astrophysics: establishing magnetohydrodynamics as a modelling tool in astrophysics.

A legacy for future generations

Professor Balbus comments: ‘I am deeply honoured to be recognised with this year’s RAS Eddington medal. The award has a long history, with many of the great astrophysicists of our time appearing on the list of recipients; it is wonderful to be associated with these individuals. I am also very pleased that my accretion work has turned out to be so useful to so many people – it is always a bit of a shock when the pen and pencil scribbles that you work with turn out to have a life of their own.’

The announcement was made on Friday 10 January and the medals will be awarded at an official ceremony in July.

Find out more about this year's Royal Astronomical Society's awards.