…and The Egyptian God of Chaos

Cold universes, fast radio bursts and the Egyptian god of chaos.

Research into extra-terrestrial life, powerful energy busts lasting milliseconds and a star system dubbed the most extreme object in the Universe have led to honours for three Sydney scientists.

The prizes were awarded this week at the annual conference of the Astronomical Society of Australia, the country’s peak professional body representing astronomers.

Searching for meaning in our cold, dark universe

Professor Geraint Lewis from Sydney University wins the David Allen* Prize.

The fundamental make-up of space and time, the prospects for extra-terrestrial life and whether there is one universe or many – these are some of the topics tackled by Sydney University’s Professor Geraint Lewis, both as a scientist and as a communicator. Through pop-sci books, magazine articles, podcasts, YouTube videos, public appearances and radio interviews, Geraint poses questions designed to spark searches for origin and meaning in a cold, dark universe. He believes that encouraging the next generation of STEM students is fundamental for Australia’s scientific and technological future.

*David Allen was one of the key early users of the Anglo-Australian Observatory. The prize is awarded for exceptional achievement in astronomy communication.

Tracing the origin of fast radio bursts

CSIRO’s Dr Keith Bannister wins the Anne Green* Prize.

Fast radio bursts transient high-energy pulses – lasting at most a few milliseconds – that streak through the cosmos. CSIRO’s Dr Keith Bannister succeeded in detecting a once-off FRB and, for the first time ever, identified its originating galaxy.  Keith combines engineering and astronomy, developing new techniques for detecting FRBs by adapting the antennas of CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Western Australia. He created a search technique, dubbed “fly’s eye mode”, which has thus far allowed him and colleagues to double the number of recorded FRBs.

* Professor Anne Green retired from astronomy research in 2017 and this prize was established to honour her extensive contribution to astronomy throughout her successful career. It recognises a significant advance or accomplishment by a mid-career scientist.

Finding the most extreme object in the Universe

Dr Joseph Callingham, ex University of Sydney, wins the Louise Webster* prize.

Dr Joseph Callingham discovered the brightest and most extreme stellar object found so far in the Universe. Dubbed Apep, after the ancient Egyptian god of chaos, it comprises at least three massive hot stars enshrouded in spectacular spiralling plumes of dust. Joseph and colleagues demonstrated that Apep is generating two types of stellar wind, one moving six times faster than the other – a profoundly strange result. Since the finding was first reported in Nature Astronomy in 2019, the work has ignited many new research projects and generated hundreds of media stories. Joseph was originally based at the University of Sydney and is now at Leiden University in The Netherlands.

*Dr Louise Webster was an inaugural staff astronomer at the Anglo Australian Observatory. She passed away in 1990 at the age of 49, after a long illness. The prize recognises outstanding research by a scientist early in their post-doctoral career.