Institute for Astronomy Home
IFA Home Page   |    Search   |    Other Editions    No. 51 - 2014 
  All Articles  


Tully Wins Three Major Prizes

Brent Tully
Brent Tully
Photo by Igor Karachentsev.

IfA astronomer Brent Tully is one of four recipients of the 2014 Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize for his role in understanding the structure and evolution of the nearby Universe. He also won the Wempe Award given by the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) “in recognition of his groundbreaking research about the structure of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos,” and is a co-winner of the Viktor Ambartsumian International Prize established in 2009 by the president of Armenia in commemoration of the great Armenian astrophysicist.

At UH since 1975, Tully came to prominence with the publication of a 1977 paper, written with J. Richard Fisher, proposing a relationship between the masses of galaxies and their luminosities. Measure the mass of a galaxy, and you’ll know the galaxy’s true brightness. Compare the true brightness with its observed brightness, and you’ll know its distance (much as you could calculate the distance of a light bulb if you knew its lumens). The “Tully-Fisher relation” remains a standard tool in astronomy to this day. It has allowed astronomers to determine distances to galaxies, the key measurement that allows us to view the Universe in three dimensions.

In 1988, Tully published the Nearby Galaxies Catalog, along with the Nearby Galaxies Atlas, the first major attempt to illustrate the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies. Using 3-D locations approximated from redshifts (the lengthening of wavelengths of light as objects move away from Earth) and a simple model, he mapped the locations of 2,400 nearby galaxies. At intervals, Tully has also published catalogs of directly measured distances. The most recent, released in 2013, provides distances for over 8,000 galaxies, which is the largest assembly of distances currently available.

Tully shares the $500,000 Gruber Prize with Jaan Einasto (Tartu Observatory, Estonia), Kenneth Freeman (Australian National University), and Sidney van den Bergh, a retired Canadian astronomer. The prize will be presented to them in a ceremony at Yale University on October 1.

“We want to recognize their pioneering contributions to the understanding of the structure and composition of the nearby Universe,” says Wendy Freedman, chair of the Selection Advisory Board for the Gruber Prize. “Their decades-long observations and analyses of relatively local galaxies have allowed cosmologists—including themselves—to investigate the evolution of the Universe on the largest scales.”

Tully received the Wempe Award on June 30 from the AIP in Potsdam, Germany. The award honors Johann Wempe (1906–1980), the last director of the Astrophysical Observatory of Potsdam (AOP), one of the predecessor institutions that were combined to create the AIP after the reunification of Germany. Financed by funds willed to AOP by Wempe, it consists of a monthly stipend of €2,500 (about $3,400) to enable a promising young scientist or an accomplished senior scientist to visit the AIP for up to six months. Recipients are expected to participate in the scientific life of the institute by giving a series of lectures in their area of expertise.

The Ambartsumian International Prize has been awarded every two years since 2010 to those who have made an important contribution in astronomy/astrophysics and related sciences. The Special Astrophysical Observatory in Russia nominated Tully and his Russian collaborator, Prof. Igor Karachentsev, “for their fundamental contribution in the cosmology of the Local Universe.” They share the prize with Prof. Felix Aharonian (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland), who is recognized for his contributions to high-energy astrophysics.

The recipients were chosen by an international steering committee chaired by the president of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, which received nominations from national academies of sciences, universities, and observatories in various countries. The $500,000 prize will be shared, with Aharonian receiving $250,000, and Karachentsev and Tully each receiving $125,000.