In science, awards often go to individuals to commemorate a singular, monumental discovery or breakthrough. In Roger Blandford’s case, he recently received the prestigious Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2020, not for one fundamental contribution, but for many – so many that the awarding organization lauded Blandford as one of the rare few “universal” scientists in the world.

The Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2020 is awarded to Roger Blandford for his wide-ranging foundational contributions to theoretical astrophysics. (Image credit: Courtesy of Roger Blandford)

Over a half-century-long career in theoretical astrophysics, Blandford, 70, has put together quite the highlight reel. Among other significant advances, he delivered foundational insights into the black hole-driven jets blasting out of galactic cores, natural cosmic “magnifying” glasses, and the ripples in spacetime known as gravitational waves.

The Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize Foundation cited these contributions and more in awarding Blandford the $1.2 million Shaw Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel of the East.” The prize has been awarded annually since 2004 in three categories: Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences. Blandford is the first winner of the Astronomy prize at Stanford.

“It really is a tremendous honor to receive the Shaw Prize,” said Blandford, the Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) and a Professor at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. “Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of wonderful teachers, students and colleagues, from whom I’ve learned so much and continue to learn. They’ve really given me so many opportunities as a scientist to keep kicking at the walls and pushing the boundaries.”

Blandford said he learned of the win through an email that “came out of the blue, around dinnertime” from the Shaw Prize Foundation several hours before the public announcement on May 21. Blandford initially assumed the email was a general notification sent to a mailing list regarding an upcoming prize announcement.

“Then I read on,” Blandford said, laughing. “I’m still frankly as surprised as I am delighted.”

While sharing in his delight, Blandford’s colleagues at Stanford are not in the slightest bit shocked over his winning of the esteemed international award.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all, given Roger’s accomplishments and contributions,” said Peter Michelson, professor physics and the senior associate dean for the natural sciences at H&S. “I fully agree with the Shaw Prize Foundation’s description of Roger as an ‘outstanding all-around theoretical astrophysicist.'”

“Roger has an outstanding breadth of appreciation for what is interesting,” said Risa Wechsler, a professor of physics at H&S, of particle physics and astrophysics at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). “It’s really incredible how many important contributions Roger has made to so many areas of astrophysics that continue to be extremely relevant.”

There from the start

Blandford traces his fascination with science back to a public library where he grew up in Birmingham, United Kingdom. He pored over all the books he could find on mathematics, chemistry and astronomy. “After I read those, I was genuinely hooked on the business,” he said.

Blandford pursued theoretical physics and astrophysics at Cambridge University, then went on to postdoctoral positions across the pond at Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley. He became faculty at the California Institute of Technology in 1976. In 2003, he came to Stanford to become the first director of KIPAC.

Some of Blandford’s early work involved rapidly spinning neutron stars, called pulsars, which are hyper-dense leftovers of massive stars that send beams of radiation through space. His interest in extreme phenomena only grew from there toward black holes, the densest conceivable objects and the engines of the most energetic events in the universe. “You could say I’ve been ‘attracted’ by the gravity of a black hole,” Blandford joked.

That allure led to groundbreaking work on the supermassive black holes found within the hearts of galaxies. Blandford theoretically described the complex physics behind how these black holes interact with their surrounding disks of matter, accelerating the material to intense speeds and energies. In the process, these so-called active galactic nuclei generate high-powered jets and immense amounts of radiation, bright enough to be captured by our telescopes clear across the universe.

Blandford also constructed pioneering models for the use of gravitational lenses, a critical tool in modern astrophysics and cosmology. These cosmic lenses arise when the gravity from massive foreground galaxy clusters bends and magnifies the light from background galaxies, allowing astronomers to study otherwise inaccessible details about both the lensing cluster and far-flung objects being lensed.

Blandford’s investigations into the interactions of pairs of neutron stars, as well as binary, supermassive black holes, have also helped inform the cutting-edge science of gravitational waves – tiny ripples that propagate through spacetime like waves across a pond. In 2015, a full century after Albert Einstein initially predicted gravitational waves’ existence, the LIGO experiment at last directly detected such waves passing through Earth, ushering in a whole new era of astrophysics.

Looking back over some of his major accomplishments, Blandford said, “I have tended to be attracted to the extremes, but I love to consider the subtle as well.”

As an example, Blandford’s most recent paper explores how cosmic rays – high-energy particles from space – raining down on ancient life on Earth could have delicately tipped the evolutionary scales in favor of a certain molecular “handedness” ubiquitous in modern life.

“In everything he does, Roger brings a deep knowledge of physics,” Michelson said, “and he knows how to apply that to phenomena across a huge range of energy and life scales.”

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