Institute of Astronomy

Prof. Martin J. Rees awarded Fritz Zwicky Prize for Astrophysics & Cosmology

Published on 06/03/2020 

The Inaugural Fritz Zwicky Prize for Astrophysics & Cosmology is awarded to Prof. Martin J. Rees (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom) for outstanding contributions to astrophysics and cosmology including seminal papers on active galaxies and black holes, the origin of gamma-ray bursts, the large-scale structure of the Universe, and the cosmic microwave background. This exceptionally broad oeuvre has been both prescient and enormously influential.


Professor Sir Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal of England, past President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College) studied in Cambridge University taking a BA in 1963 and PhD (1967), the latter for work with Dennis Sciama on physics of quasars and tests of steady state cosmology. After several research posts, and then a Chair at the University of Sussex, he was appointed Plumian Professor in Cambridge in 1973, post he held until 1991. He has held visiting and professorial positions in London, Princeton, Sussex, Harvard, and Caltech, where he interacted collegially with Zwicky in Fritz's home and office during his visit to Caltech in1971. Rees held, at last count 25 honorary doctorates from universities around the world and honorary fellowships and awards in 13 countries. He has been a member of the Order of Merit since 2007. The most recent of his 10 books 'On the Future' is being translated into 16 languages.

Prof. Martin Rees has maintained a consistent flow of important papers, over an amazingly wide range of topics in astronomy and cosmology-especially in high-energy processes, compact objects, relativistic astrophysics, galactic evolution, and the emergence of structure in the expanding universe. He is widely admired for his physical insight, and many of his ideas have proved prescient, being vindicated by later observations, forming the basis for productive development by many others. He is primarily a theorist, but has always maintained close interactions with observers in all wavebands. He has achieved his pervasive influence not only through his papers, but also through his students, postdocs, the extended international 'network' of collaborators, the many lectures and reviews, both at conferences and to more general public audiences. He has also, especially in the last two decades, had an important role in science policy and international collaborations. 

Prof. Rees has been the most influential single contributor to our understanding of the nuclei of galaxies. Even in the 1960s while still a student, he made predictions about 'superluminal expansion'; and other physical processes now recognised to be crucial to these phenomena. He originated key ideas about supermassive black holes - how the holes form, generate collimated jets, and energise active galaxies, their multiphase gaseous environment, and their use as probes of relativistic gravity.

With colleagues and students, he has maintained a flow of original contributions to the study of compact objects. Early in his career, he helped delineate the now-standard scenario for X-ray binaries in terms of accretion onto compact objects. More recently, his focus has been on gamma-ray bursts, where he and his associates have injected several key ideas that have clarified how these enigmatic objects arise.

He has focused not only on the cores of galaxies, but also on the galaxies themselves, and wrote classic papers that related the characteristic sizes of galaxies to basic physics. He authored some key papers on 'cold dark matter' (CDM) in the 1980s; later, he pioneered the exploration of CDM's implications for the 'first stars', high-redshift quasars, the ionisation and structure of the intergalactic medium. Over 40 years ago, he was already emphasising the importance of exploring 'how the cosmic dark age ended' and of 'Population III' stars.

In recent years there has been enormous growth in interest in the high-redshift universe. Prof. Rees has emphasized the role of molecules in early cooling, the role of successive mergers in the coordinated build-up of galaxies and massive black holes and the use of gamma-ray burst and supernovae to probe early epochs. He was the first to propose the possibility of 'cosmic tomography' using the 21 cm line, a subject now attracting wide interest in the context of future radio-astronomy projects. As a first-year postdoc in 1968, he wrote a prescient paper proposing that cosmic microwave background polarisation measurements could elucidate the origin of fluctuations and anisotropy in the microwave background. Polarisation of the CMB was first detected in 2002 and is now accepted as a key diagnostic for the physics of ultra-early eras. Another type of CMB fluctuation, the 'Rees-Sciama' effect due to large non-linear perturbations, was also proposed back in 1968, and is attracting renewed interest. He has been associated with many key developments in understanding gamma-ray bursts. His pioneering 1988 paper on the tidal disruption of stars by massive black holes (TDEs) led to this topic being intensively studied, at least 60 such events having been observed. In addition, Prof. Rees has written influential papers on large-scale clustering in the universe; cosmic magnetic fields and their origin; gravitational radiation; and cosmic strings, the idea of multiple Universes and the future of mankind itself.

Prof. Rees is one of the most highly cited researchers in his field. His influence on the contemporary development of astronomy and astrophysics - via informal discussions, correspondence, his wide travels, many lectures, and reviews is even greater than appears the formal publication record.


See the press release

Page last updated: 6 March 2020 at 16:39