UVA Astronomer Wins Major Prize in Astronomy

Jun 3, 2013

Dr. John Hawley
Credit University of Virginia

A University of Virginia professor has won the Asian equivalent to the Nobel Prize for his research on energy, magnetism and black holes.  The news came by e-mail, and John Hawley is still buzzing.

“I grew up in the Gemini and Apollo era, and that was very exciting.  I had a cardboard box spaceship like many of my generation, and I was also inspired by reading the science essays that were written by  Isaac Asimov," he said.

And at Haverford College, he got interested in the question of what happens to matter as it approaches black holes – objects with a gravitational field so strong that light cannot escape.

“When matter falls into a black hole, it gains speed, it gains energy, and basically the in fall speeds are greater than the speed of light, so if you have a way of tapping into that energy, other than just having it fall into the black hole, then you have an enormous source of energy which could be radiated.”

In the early 90’s, he and former UVA Professor Steven Balbus made an important discovery about the role of magnetism in the process.  Their work was published, and the two moved on, but last week Hawley got a surprise.

“There was an e-mail  from somebody I knew in Germany that said, ‘Congratulations,’ and I said, ‘What’s that for?’And then I saw an e-mail from my colleague Steve Balbus, and it said, ‘See you in Hong Kong,’ and then I showed I to my wife , and she said something to the effect that they must have the wrong John Hawley," he said.

Later, he heard from the sponsors of a prestigious award called the Shaw Prize, set up by Hong Kong billionaire and media mogul Runrun Shaw. Hawley will split a million dollars with Balbus, who is now at Oxford.  The Virginia astronomer isn’t sure what they’ll do with the cash, but there are two things he knows – the federal government will expect a cut, and he won’t be going to Disney World.

‘I’m going to Hong Kong!’

Hawley is gratified that there IS a prize for astronomy – something Nobel doesn’t offer, and he hopes his success will inspire other young people to explore the mysteries of physics and outer space.