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Sydney astronomer gets top science medal

Magnetic field lines superposed on a galaxy

Magnetic fields are spread throughout the universe, but their ultimate origin and evolution are still a mystery. Image courtesy Andrew Fletcher / Rainer Beck, SuW / Hubble Heritage Team, STScI / AURA.

ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S TOP science honours, the highly prestigious Pawsey Medal has been awarded to Bryan Gaensler, Professor of Physics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy within the School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

The Pawsey Medal is awarded annually by the Australian Academy of Science and recognises outstanding Australian research in physics by scientists under 40 years of age.

Professor Bryan Gaensler

Professor Bryan Gaensler: "Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it's wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure." Image courtesy University of Sydney.

This is the tenth occasion on which a staff member at the School of Physics has been awarded this honour, a remarkable achievement. Previous winners include Professor Kostya Ostrikov in 2008 and Professor Benjamin Eggleton in 2007.

Professor Gaensler received the award for his pioneering studies of cosmic magnetism, which have opened a new window on the Universe.

He has developed innovative new spectropolarimetric techniques, and has then used them to derive detailed three-dimensional maps of large-scale magnetic fields in the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds and in distant galaxies.

His experiments reveal what cosmic magnets look like and what role they have played in the evolving Universe. They have led to the selection of Cosmic Magnetism as a key science project for the Square Kilometre Array, a planned next-generation radio telescope for which Western Australia is one of the two contenders.

As a by-product of studying astrophysical magnetism, Professor Gaensler has also made the stunning discovery that the Milky Way is twice as thick as was previously thought, a result that fundamentally changes our understanding of our home Galaxy.

“It’s a huge honour to be recognised in this way by a body as distinguished as the Academy of Science,” Professor Gaensler said.

“Australian astronomy is headed in some very exciting directions right now, and it’s wonderful to be able to play a part in this adventure.”

Looking to the future, Professor Gaensler is about to take on a major new role as an Australian Laureate Fellow, commencing in early 2011. He plans to determine the overall magnetic field of the Universe, one of the final unsolved problems in cosmology.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Sydney.

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