University of Leicester eBulletin

Leicester Link to Nobel Prizewinner

October 2002
No 221


Distinguished scientist collaborated closely with University of Leicester

The University of Leicester has strong links with a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics announced this week - and Leicester has played a part in his success.

Dr Riccardo Giacconi is one of three scientists recognised for discovering new ways to study galaxies and stars. He made instruments capable of detecting x-rays from outside the Solar System.

In a statement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said: “This year’s Nobel laureates in physics have used these very smallest components of the universe to increase our understanding of the very largest: the Sun, stars, galaxies and supernovae.

“The new knowledge has changed the way we look upon the Universe.”

Professor Ken Pounds, of the University of Leicester, said he was delighted with the accolade for Dr Giacconi - a friend and long term colleague - and paid tribute to him: “X-ray Astronomy essentially began with a successful rocket flight from White Sands, New Mexico in June 1962, which discovered a remarkably powerful X-ray source in the constellation Scorpius.

The experiment was put together by a team at American Science and Engineering in Cambridge, Mass., led by Dr Riccardo Giacconi.

“At the University of Leicester, we were able to enter the new field rather quickly since we already had our own Skylark rocket programme with launches from Woomera in S Australia. For several years we ran a complementary programme exploring the Southern skies.

“I spent six months working with Giacconi's group developing the first satellite devoted to X-ray astronomy. Funded by NASA and named 'Uhuru', or 'freedom' in swahili, that satellite was successfully placed in orbit in 1970 from a former oil rig off the Kenyan coast. I was fortunate to be able to share in the exciting early discoveries from Uhuru during a second extended visit to Cambridge in 1971.

“On returning home our efforts went into developing a UK successor to UHURU, successfully launched in 1974, also from Malindi. Ariel 5 operated until 1980 and was the basis on which we were able to build a strong scientific links with US groups - and stimulate the subject across W Europe.

“The third milestone in Giacconi’s Nobel citation also involved a Leicester link. That occurred in 1979 with the launch of the Einstein Observatory, when Giacconi’s group had moved to Harvard. That first imaging X-ray telescope was equipped with a camera whose design and sensitivity owed much to input from Leicester, with Professor George Fraser playing a key role.

“Finally, the fourth milestone in Giacconi’s remarkable career as the father figure of X-ray astronomy came in 1999 with the launch of the NASA Chandra mission. Again, we had a significant role with George Fraser and Space Research Centre colleagues contributing crucially to the camera recording the uniquely sharp X-ray images from Chandra.

“In responding to his award Giacconi referred this week to the many colleagues he has worked with over the years. I know that outside of the USA, the University of Leicester is high on that list.”

NOTE TO NEWSDESK: For more information, contact Professor Pounds on 0116 252 3509.

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Last updated: October 2002
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