Reporter 411, 1 December 1997

Cosmic flashes and black holes prompt top award

A professor who opened a new window on the universe is to be awarded the prestigious Rutherford Medal for 1998. Professor Michael Hillas (right), who has spent almost 40 years at the University, will be honoured by the Institute of Physics for a ‘lifetime’s authoritative contributions’ to the understanding of cosmic rays. His work has concentrated on finding the source of high-energy gamma rays which, unknown to most of us, continually bombard the Earth. When they enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere, they produce flashes which are invisible to the naked eye. In a project called the Whipple Observatory Collaboration, a 400-inch telescope in Arizona is used to take snapshots of these flashes in the sky. The gamma rays appear to come from a very small powerhouse in the centre of a galaxy that emits around 100 times the energy of the whole of a normal galaxy. Professor Hillas explains: “The source of the energy is probably either one or two black holes, where many hundreds of millions of stars have coalesced to wield a highly concentrated gravitational force.” The bronze medal will be presented at London’s Savoy Hotel next month.

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