Exotic materials and pulsars win European prize
Dec 2, 2005
Groups of scientists that have pioneered a new type of "left-handed" material with unusual electromagnetic properties and used astronomical bodies known as pulsars to study fundamental physics have won a share of this year's Descartes Prize from the European Union. The prize, worth €1m, has also been awarded for research on climate, social science, and disease management. A separate €250,000 prize has also been awarded to five outstanding communicators of science.
The EXEL collaboration wins its €200,000 for demonstrating the physical reality of left-handed materials, which can refract light rays "negatively". Thirty years after Russian scientist Victor Veselago postulated the existence of left-handed materials in the 1960s, John Pendry of Imperial College in London proposed that such materials could be made from either arrays of non-magnetic metallic wires or from split-ring resonators. The realization of these materials by Pendry and colleagues in the EXEL collaboration suggests a number of exciting technologies, such as improved magnetic resonance imaging devices, better mobile phone antennas and "perfect" lenses that would focus an image with a resolution not restricted by the wavelength of light.
The PULSE collaboration wins its share of the prize for the study of pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars formed by the collapse of a massive star in a supernova explosion. By studying apparent variations in pulse rates, researchers can test general relativity and explore the solid-state physics of super dense matter, as well as learning more about the behaviour of pulsars themselves. PULSE, led by Andrew Lyne of the University of Manchester and in collaboration with astronomers in Australia, has located over 850 pulsars, exceeding the number located by all astronomers over the previous 30 years. The highlight of this research was the first ever discovery in 2003 of a double pulsar, which has provided a very stern test of general relativity.
The other three fifths of the Descartes Research Prize are awarded to the CECA team for its work on climate and environmental change in the Arctic; to ESS for comparing social values across Europe; and to EURO-PID for research on rare genetic diseases. The Descartes Science Communication Prize is awarded to Carl Sundberg from Sweden; the Copenhagen University astrophysicist Anja Andersen; Jos Van Hemelrijck of VRT Television in Belgium; the author Bill Bryson; and Michael Seifert of Tübingen University. There are also five runners-up for the research prize, each of which receives €30,000, and five runners-up for the science communication prize, each of whom receive €5000. The awards were made on December 2 at the Royal Society in London.
About the author
Edwin Cartlidge is News Editor at Physics World