Press Release

Queen Victoria Museum: Reber Medal Awarded to Prof. Jim Moran

By SpaceRef Editor
March 4, 2013
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The Grote Reber Foundation has announced that Professor Jim Moran will be the recipient of the 2013 Grote Reber Gold Medal.

The Grote Reber Medal is awarded annually for significant and innovative contributions to radio astronomy. Moran is being recognized for his pioneering work in the development and application of spectroscopic Very Long Baseline Interferometry.

Moran is the Donald H. Menzel Professor of Astrophysics at Harvard University and a Senior Radio Astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), where he has spent his entire career. He also holds a position as Concurrent Professor of Astronomy at Nanjing University and previously served as Chair of the Harvard Department of Astronomy and Associate Director of SAO.

Moran did his undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame and received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1968. He has previously received the American Astronomical Society’s Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, was the joint recipient of the 1971 Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and was the 1996 National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Jansky Lecturer. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a coauthor of a widely used reference book, “Interferometry and Synthesis in Radio Astronomy.”

Moran’s interest in radio astronomy began while he was in high school, where he used his experience as an amateur radio operator to build a small radio telescope at 400 MHz to detect the Sun. He later participated in one of the earliest summer programs at NRAO in 1962, which permanently hooked him on radio astronomy as a career.

Moran also played a key role in the design and application of the NRAO Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) for spectroscopic observations. In 1994, he led an international group of collaborators and students to use the VLBA to image the masers in the Seyfert galaxy NGC 4258, which convincingly demonstrated that the spots trace a nearly Keplerian accretion disk around a supermassive black hole.

This work provided definitive and direct evidence for the existence of supermassive black holes and the first direct geometric distance estimate to a galaxy independent of the traditional multi-step extragalactic distance ladder.

The VLBA estimate of the distance to NGC 4258 of 7.2 +/- 0.5 megaparsecs was the most precise extragalactic distance measurement at that time, and has played an important role in the calibration of the Cepheid distance scale based on observations of Cepheid variables in NGC 4258.

Accurate knowledge of extragalactic distances is a key factor in establishing the equation of state of dark matter as well as being an essential prerequisite for the determination of the age, energy density, geometry, and the evolution of the universe. Moran was also the director of the Submillimeter Array (SMA) on Mauna Kea during its construction. Among other projects, he used the SMA to study the accretion flow in the black hole in the center of our galaxy, known as Sgr A*.

The 2013 Grote Reber Medal will be awarded to Moran on July 8 in Turku, Finland, during the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science.

About Grote Reber

Grote Reber was born on 22 December 1911. Before he was 30 years of age, he became the world’s first radio astronomer. He opened up a whole new window on the universe through which astronomers can study objects and processes quite different to those that produce ordinary light. These include quasars and pulsars, and the detection of atoms and molecules in the space between the stars.

Before the 1930s, astronomers could study the universe only in visible light — the radiation that our eyes, and ordinary photographic film, can detect. That changed in two major steps. In the early 1930s, Karl Jansky investigated radio interference in transatlantic telephone links and, in the process, discovered radio emissions from our Milky Way Galaxy. It was Grote Reber, however, who decided that this was an important new way of studying the universe and decided to take some action. He said, “I consulted with myself and decided to build a dish.”

To this end, Reber, in 1937, constructed the world’s first purpose-built radio telescope. He built it adjacent to his home in Wheaton, Illinois, just west of Chicago, and it was of the now familiar ‘dish’ design. Reber’s telescope was the forerunner of the classic design of the world’s famous radio telescopes (including the famous ‘dish’ at Parkes, in Australia). The same principle is used widely today in many other applications, including satellite dishes in private homes.

Reber used his telescope, which had a diameter of 9.75 meters (32 feet), to map the sky at a frequency of 160 MHz — a wavelength of 1.9 meters. This was the first detailed radio map of the sky. It showed the Milky Way, and revealed for the first time the presence of the galactic Center in Sagittarius, and the radio source known as Cassiopeia A.

“His work was a huge step forward for astronomy”, said Martin George, Administrator of the Grote Reber Medal. “For the first time, the universe was being studied at wavelengths other than those visible to our eyes”, he added.

After leaving Wheaton in the early 1950s, Reber conducted radio astronomy experiments at the summit of Mount Haleakala, where he was the first astronomer to build a high-altitude observatory in Hawaii. Then, in 1954, he moved to Tasmania, Australia, where he began observing at very much longer wavelengths using a quite different type of ‘telescope’: an array of dipoles, which took the form of antennas strung between the tops of poles.

North of his home in Bothwell, in southern central Tasmania, Reber constructed such an array which was supported 20 meters above the ground and operated at a frequency of 2.08 MHz — a wavelength of 144 meters. This very low frequency radio telescope covered an area of one square kilometer. Although now dismantled, in terms of collecting area it still holds the record for the world’s largest single radio telescope ever constructed. In the 1960s, Reber mapped the southern sky with this telescope.

Reber involved himself in many other scientific pursuits. Among his activities, he built an energy-efficient house in Bothwell; he was fascinated by plants, and in particular the direction in which beans entwined themselves around poles; and he was particularly keen on studying energy-efficient transport, being very proud of his electric car called Pixie.

Reber was well known for his independent thoughts and activities.

“Grote had very strong convictions and didn’t care what ‘self-appointed pundits’ thought. He knew what he wanted, and usually got what he wanted. He once pointed out that he would put his hearing aid in his good ear, so it would shut out the noise”, said Dr. Ken Kellermann.

Reber’s views on various topics included his opposition to the widely accepted Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe. “Grote and I would often chat about his ideas”, recalls Martin George. “He was often heard to say that The Big Bang is Bunk!”.

Although Reber’s research and ideas often fell outside the mainstream activities of other astronomers, his contributions, especially in the early days of radio astronomy, were both pioneering and critically important. He was awarded a number of prizes — including the 1962 Bruce Medal — and an honorary Doctor of Science Degree from Ohio State University in the USA.

“Grote Reber’s achievements showed, most importantly, that one person can make a difference”, said Dr. David Jauncey.

Grote Reber died in Tasmania on 20 December 2002, two days before his 91st birthday.

Martin George
Administrator, Grote Reber Medal
Queen Victoria Museum, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia,
+61 3-63233777, cell: +61 437-688824

SpaceRef staff editor.