Culture, history and society

A focus on gold

Prized by Pharaohs, treasured by the Aztecs and the focus of numerous American gold rushes, the 79th element has - since time immemorial - signified riches, power and opulence.

Gold medals conjure up images of elite Olympic athletes from across the globe on podiums, revelling in the glory of coming first and being the best.

It is fitting therefore that IOP gold medals are awarded to recognise and reward physicists of international reputation, who have made outstanding and sustained contributions to physics.

We caught up with this year’s winners - six remarkable individuals who have made significant contributions in their fields - and asked them how they felt about winning.

Professor Keith Ellis from the University of Durham plays a leading role in the development of new techniques for precision calculations in quantum field theory, which helps enable the interpretation of data from the Large Hadron Collider.

He received the 2019 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize.

Awarded for outstanding and sustained contributions to theoretical (including mathematical and computational) physics, in Keith’s case this was ‘for his seminal work in quantum chromodynamics (QCD) where he performed many of the key calculations that led to the acceptance of QCD as the correct theory of the strong interaction’.

Keith said: “When I look at the list of the previous winners of the Paul Dirac Medal I am profoundly honoured to now be counted among their number. Through my work I have contributed to the understanding of Quantum Chromodynamics, but also to the interpretation of the physical phenomena observed at the Tevatron and LHC colliders.”

Professor Roy Taylor from Imperial College London received the Michael Faraday Medal and Prize. On being awarded it, he said:

“As I near the end of my career, it has been a totally unexpected honour to receive such recognition, of not just those in my specialist area but the physics community. It’s quite humbling. I am delighted and surprised.”

The Michael Faraday Medal is awarded for outstanding and sustained contributions to experimental physics.

Roy received the accolade ‘for his extensive, internationally leading contributions to the development of spectrally diverse, ultrafast-laser sources and pioneering fundamental studies of nonlinear fibre optics that have translated to scientific and commercial application’.

He has been actively involved in experimental laser-based research for over 47 years and is widely acknowledged for his ‘hands-on’ approach and experimental innovation. His work resulted in significant advances in clinical medical imaging.

The 2019 Richard Glazebrook Medal and Award, given for leadership in a physics context went to Professor Anne-Christine Davis from the University of Cambridge ‘for her outstanding support and leadership in physics, particularly for women and those from non-traditional backgrounds, for her leadership of the UK particle cosmology community, and her gender championship roles’.

Anne is a particle cosmologist, who has guided this field in the UK and supported the careers of many generations of researchers. The first woman in the CERN theory group and the first female professor in the faculty of mathematics at Cambridge University, she has worked to break down barriers and enable physicists from under-represented backgrounds to participate in physics research.

Of receiving her award, she stated: “I am truly honoured to be awarded the Richard Glazebrook medal and prize by the IOP. To be recognised by one’s peers in such a way is amazing. When I read the citation I am overwhelmed that others have written this of me. But I didn’t achieve this alone. I am forever indebted to my mentor and co-founder of UK Cosmology, the late Tom Kibble. My achievements in Cambridge and the UK have built on the work of others, not least the women who came before me and were not properly recognised in the way I have been. I am grateful to them.”

The 2019 Katharine Burr Blodgett Medal and Prize for outstanding and sustained contributions to the organisation or application of physics in an industrial or commercial context went to Professor Chris Hancock from Creo Medical Limited.

Chris's initial designs formed the basis of Creo's advanced energy electro-surgery generator, which is now being placed in hospitals around the world.

He received the award ‘for designing and patenting an electro-surgery platform enabling microwave and bipolar radio frequency energy to be delivered from a range of miniature endoscopic devices to treat lesions in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract’ and described it as,

“The recognition of a journey, which began in 2002 with the vision of treating cancer sufferers worldwide - while I was trekking in the Himalayas - and is now changing the lives of over 100 patients with early stage colon cancer.”

Creo's technology enables pre-cancerous lesions and early stage cancers in the gastrointestinal tract to be resected with endoscopic surgery in full, with a safety margin of healthy tissue, reducing the chances of the cancer returning. Procedures using the Creo system are life changing for patients and are reshaping currently accepted practices in endoscopy.

Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright and Professor Mark Warner from the University of Cambridge were this year’s joint winners of the Lawrence Bragg Medal and Award, given for outstanding and sustained contributions to physics education.

Lisa and Mark received it ‘for jointly setting up and directing the Isaac Physics programme which has revolutionised physics education for teachers and students in an extraordinary number of UK schools and is now attracting international attention’.

Since 2013 they have co-directed the Isaac Physics Project, a free-to-access Open Platform for Active Learning (OPAL) where students are able to develop analytical skills and an understanding of physics through problem solving. Every month, 28,000 students and 1,300 teachers from more than 3,600 schools use OPAL.

Lisa and Mark said: “When we began the Isaac Physics project achieving our aims of successfully supporting a wide range of students and teachers was its own reward.  To have been awarded and IOP gold medal in recognition of our efforts was a great surprise and pleasure, prompting us to recognise that the Project has accomplished something outstanding.”

Our final Gold medal and Prize of 2019 was the William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize which is awarded for outstanding and sustained contributions to public engagement within physics.

This year, it went to Dr Philip Ball 'for being an informed and lucid writer and broadcaster who opens doors into science, and especially physics, for many people who otherwise find them closed'.

Philip Ball has been an exceptional communicator of science - especially physics for three decades. He regularly contributes to BBC radio science programmes, writes widely on physics subjects for newspapers, magazines and the popular scientific press, and is a regular contributor to Physics World.

On receiving his award, Philip commented: “There is no award so gratifying as one that expresses the judgement of genuine experts. To be chosen for this prize by the Institute of Physics is therefore not just a thrill and an honour, but feels like a uniquely affirming boost to my efforts to bring physics to a broad audience.”