Durham University part of international team to win Descartes prize
(19 March 2007)
An international team including physicists from Durham has won the coveted Descartes prize for Basic Research (worth £226,000) for its work studying some of the most violent phenomena in the Universe.
Often referred to as the European equivalent to the Nobel Prize, the Descartes prize has been awarded in recognition of the breakthroughs made by the team of over 100 scientists from around the world who are using extremely sensitive telescopes to gain a clearer understanding of the origins of galactic cosmic rays. Science and Innovation Minister Malcolm Wicks said: "I congratulate Durham University on their part in this very prestigious award. This is an excellent example of international collaboration in world-class research, and in a fascinating and extremely important area." Last year, Durham University’s Chancellor, Dr Bill Bryson won the Descartes prize for science communication, making this the second year in a row that Durham has been amongst the winners. The winning team, H.E.S.S., the High Energy Stereoscopic System telescopes is made up of an international team of more than 100 scientists and engineers from Germany, France, the UK, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Armenia, South Africa and the host country, Namibia. It currently operates the most sensitive telescopes in the world for the study of very high energy (VHE) gamma rays – which are only emitted in very energetic violent processes, such as near black holes and in supernovae. In the first years of operation, the H.E.S.S. collaboration has greatly advanced the young field of gamma ray astronomy, discovering several new types of source and making the first maps of the sky in VHE gamma-rays. Collaboration member Dr Paula Chadwick of Durham University said “Since H.E.S.S. started taking data in 2004 we have had a very exciting time, seeing the first images of supernova remnants at extreme energies and the most distant VHE gamma-ray sources known. “One of the reasons we are interested in VHE gamma rays is because they act as tracers for high energy particles known as cosmic rays. We are surrounded by these high energy cosmic particles and life on Earth has evolved around them over the past four billion years. To get an idea of the scale of the energy they contain, just one of these particles can contain as much energy as a tennis ball served at 100 miles per hour. “What our team is doing, using these highly sensitive telescopes in Namibia in South West Africa, is finding out more about where these cosmic particles have come from and as a result building on our understanding of the scale of the universe and its energy budget.”