Royal Astronomical Society Honours Stars of Astronomy and Geophysics

The Royal Astronomical Society today announced the 2021 winners of its medals and prizes, awarded to scientists around the world for significant achievement in the fields of astronomy and geophysics.

Their work encompasses topics as diverse as the internal structure of the Earth, the mechanics of earthquakes, electricity in planetary atmospheres, waves in the solar atmosphere, the theory of planetary formation, cataloguing the stars in our galaxy, supernova explosions, the first image of a black hole, world-leading science communication, the evolution of galaxies, and precisely determining the properties of the Universe.

Awards also recognise outstanding contributions in public engagement, and service to the astronomy and geophysics communities.

The announcements were made at the Ordinary Meeting of the Society held on Friday 8 January. The winners will be invited to collect their awards at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in July.

The Society's highest honour is its Gold Medal, which can be awarded for any reason but usually recognises lifetime achievement. Past winners include Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Arthur Eddington and Stephen Hawking. It was first awarded in 1824; since 1964 two have been awarded each year: one for astronomy, and one for geophysics.

This year the winners of the Gold Medals are Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Oxford and Professor Thorne Lay of the University of California Santa Cruz.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has made outstanding contributions to astronomy over more than half a century, famously starting with the discovery of the first pulsars in 1967. Alongside her academic work, she has served in national and international leadership roles, at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Open University, as well as serving as President of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Professor Bell Burnell is an inspirational example of responsible, fair and effective leadership and is a world-leading science communicator. She is an unwavering advocate for widening participation, creating transformative educational and research opportunities to under-represented minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Professor Thorne Lay is described as one of the great leaders of the seismological community. He has carried out outstanding work in seismological analysis, beginning with his discovery of a discontinuity a few hundred kilometres above the core-mantle boundary, which had an exceptional impact on our perceptions of the structure and dynamics of the Earth. In parallel his research provided new insights into the rupture processes of the world’s most devastating earthquakes and the generation of tsunamis. 

Professor Lay’s help was critical to the success of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), which archives and distributes the world’s earthquake data. He was elected Chair of IRIS’s Board of Directors, has served on panels on Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty research, and was President of the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior (IASPEI). 

Royal Astronomical Society President Professor Emma Bunce said:

“I’m delighted that we can recognise the wealth of talent in astronomy and geophysics through our prestigious awards and medals. In the midst of a challenging time, we should not lose sight of the achievements of the stars of our science community, inspiring us by answering the deep questions about the Earth beneath our feet and the Universe around us. My congratulations to all the winners!”

The Society also awards more than 20 other medals, awards, lectures and honorary fellowships; for more information on the awards and the achievements of the winners, see the full citations linked from the winners' names below.

Awards are designated 'A' for astronomy (including astrophysics, cosmology etc.) and 'G' for geophysics (including solar physics, planetary science, solar-terrestrial physics etc.). Some awards are given in both fields.

The full list of 2021 medals and awards is set out below (citations are linked as PDFs and Word documents):

  • Gold Medal (A): Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Oxford University (PDF) (Word)
  • Gold Medal (G): Professor Thorne Lay, University of California Santa Cruz (PDF) (Word)
  • Herschel Medal (A): Professor Stephen Smartt, Queen’s University Belfast (PDF) (Word)
  • Eddington Medal (A): Professor Hiranya Peiris, University College London (PDF) (Word)
  • Chapman Medal (G): Professor Ineke de Moortel, University of St Andrews (PDF) (Word)
  • Price Medal (G): Professor Emily Brodsky, University of California Santa Cruz (PDF) (Word)
  • Jackson-Gwilt Medal (A): Dr Floor van Leeuwen, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge (PDF) (Word)
  • Annie Maunder Medal (A): Professor Robert Walsh, University of Central Lancashire (PDF) (Word)
  • Patrick Moore Medal (A): Sarah Eames, Sandford Close Primary School, Leicester (PDF) (Word)
  • Service Medal (G): Professor Ian Crawford, Birkbeck College London (PDF) (Word)
  • Fowler Award (A): Dr James Owen, Imperial College London (PDF) (Word)
  • Fowler Award (G): Dr Richard Morton, University of Northumbria (PDF) (Word)
  • Winton Award (A): Dr Cassandra Hall, University of Georgia, USA (PDF) (Word)
  • Winton Award (G): Dr Julia E. Stawarz, Imperial College London (PDF) (Word)
  • Group Award (A): The Event Horizon Telescope (PDF) (Word)

'Named' lectures to be delivered at a meeting of the Society:

  • Harold Jeffreys Lecture: Dr Sanne Cottar, University of Cambridge (PDF) (Word)
  • George Darwin Lecture: Professor Filippo Fraternali, Kapteyn Astronomical Institute (PDF) (Word)
  • James Dungey Lecture: Dr Karen Aplin, University of Bristol (PDF) (Word)

Honorary Fellowships:

  • Professor Tamaz Chelidze, Tbilisi State University, Georgia (PDF) (Word)
  • Professor Walter Mooney, United States Geological Survey (PDF) (Word)


Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7292 3979
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877699

Dr Morgan Hollis
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877700


Notes for editors

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The RAS accepts papers for its journals based on the principle of peer review, in which fellow experts on the editorial boards accept the paper as worth considering. The Society issues press releases based on a similar principle, but the organisations and scientists concerned have overall responsibility for their content.

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Submitted by Robert Massey on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 11:18