Institute of Astronomy

Prof Richard G McMahon


Founding member of Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) team that discovered the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.  The team leader Saul Perlmutter was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery.

The main focus of my current research is in the study of galaxy formation and evolution in the Epoch of Reionization; focusing on the discovery of high redshift galaxies and quasars powered by the accretion of matter onto supermassive black holes. I work on the discovery of quasars and active galaxies that host supermassive black holes, the determination of the space densities, star formation rates and how and when galaxies and quasars form. In the past I have worked on the experimental determination of the rate of gravitational deceleration of the Universe. This work resulted in the unexpected discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.

My research also includes developing experimental survey techniques for discovering new high redshift quasars and using quasars to probe the baryonic content of the Universe. My group has pioneered the use of high redshift quasars to determine the mass of neutral hydrogen in the high redshift Universe via intervening absorption lines imprinted on the spectra of background high redshift quasars. I have also pioneered the use of mm and submm microwave radiation to determine the star formation rate in quasar host galaxies.

I am Principal Investigator (PI) of the ambitious VISTA Hemisphere Survey(VHS) which is a new near Infra-Red sky survey project which started in April, 2010.  The has been been awarded 300+ clear nights over a 5 year period on the new 4.2m ESO VISTA telescope in Chile. I lead the quasar science working group in the Dark Energy Survey(DES) project which is building a very large CCD camera (DECAM) and has been awarded 500 nights on US CTIO 4m telescope in Chile to use this camera  to observe in the optical the VHS region of the sky.

The exploitation of the extremely large datasets from these new surveys requires the use and development of robust data-mining techniques for distributed databases; machine-learning techniques such as decision trees, supervised learning and multi-dimensional data visualisation techniques.


Selected papers

Google Scholar page


  • 2012-       : Deputy Director of Institite of Astronomy
  • 2012-        : Professor of Astronomy, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
  • 2001-2012: Reader in Observational Astronomy, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
  • 2000-2001: John Couch Astronomer, University of Cambridge
  • 1999-2001: University Lecturer,  Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
  • 1994-1999: Assistant Director of Research, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
  • 1991-2001: Royal Society University Research Fellow, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
  • 1986-1991: Research Fellow, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge



  • PhD (Cantab), Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge; Supervisor: Cyril Hazard
  • Postgraduate Certification in Secondary Education (Physics), University of Cambridge
  • BSc (Hons) Physics, Queens University Belfast 

Awards and Prizes

  • Gruber Prize 2007 (as a member of the Supernova Cosmology Project for the discovery of the accelerating Universe)

Departmental and University responsibilities

  • Deputy Director of Institute
  • Chair of Computing Oversight Committee
  • Chair of School of Physcial Sciences IT Committee
Page last updated: 1 September 2014 at 18:29