Date: 11 December 2002                     Ref. PN 02/31
For immediate release

Issued by: RAS Press Officer

Dr Jacqueline Mitton
Phone: +44 ((0)1223) 564914
Fax: +44 ((0)1223) 572892

RAS web:



The European Union's prestigious Descartes Prize for research has been
awarded to an astrophysics group for the first time. UK astronomers,
Professor Sir Martin Rees of Cambridge University and Dr Nial Tanvir of the
University of Hertfordshire, are among the consortium of European
researchers awarded the prize for their ground-breaking work on gamma-ray
bursts - the biggest explosions in the universe.

The Descartes Prize is awarded annually by the European Commission for
outstanding research through transnational collaboration. The winning
astrophysics team, led by Dr Edward Van den Heuval of the University of
Amsterdam, will use their award of 0.5 million euros (approximately
equivalent to 0.3 million or $0.5 million) to develop new scientific
instruments for furthering the study of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).

The GRB team shared the 1-million euro prize with a medical project on
multiple sclerosis, after beating off stiff competition from 8 other
finalists working in a wide range of medical and scientific subjects.

The successful astrophysics team was at the forefront of dramatic progress
in understanding gamma-ray bursts in 1997-98. GRBs were discovered in the
late 1960s, but by the mid 1990s it was still unclear where they came from
or even how far away they originate. The reason for this was that GRBs had
only been detected as short, rare flashes of high-energy gamma radiation,
which offered few clues to their origin.

The critical breakthroughs came about when the Italian/Dutch X-ray satellite
BeppoSAX made the first observations of longer-lived x-ray "afterglows" -
the fading embers of GRBs. Very timely observations with ground based
telescopes also found visible afterglows, which ultimately led to the
distances of the objects producing gamma-ray bursts being measured for the
first time. The early follow-up observations were led mainly by the late
Prof Jan van Paradijs of Amsterdam University, although they included
contributions from observers in many other countries, notably the UK, Italy,
Denmark, Spain and the US.

The researchers found that GRBs are extremely violent explosions occurring
in remote galaxies. Their peak output is so immense that it amounts to more
than a billion billion times the power of the Sun. Whilst this enormous
luminosity exceeds all expectations, it turns out that most GRBs can be
described by existing theories of so-called "relativistic fireballs". These
arise when an extremely violent explosion produces a blast wave of material
moving very close to the speed of light, initially creating high-energy
gamma radiation, and then a lower energy afterglow as it crashes into
surrounding gas.

"Although we now know where the objects that give off gamma-ray bursts are,"
said Nial Tanvir, "many questions remain unanswered - not least, what gives
rise to the explosions that produce them. The Descartes Prize recognises the
pioneering achievements of the last few years but will also help us tackle
the outstanding puzzle as to what causes gamma-ray burst in the first


Professor Sir Martin Rees, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge
phone: (+44) (0)1223 337520

Dr Nial Tanvir, University of Hertfordshire
phone (+44) (0)1707 286299
mobile phone: (+44) (0)7980 136499


1. More about the Decartes Prize can be found at

2. Other members of the gamma-ray burst collaboration with affiliations as
they appear on the Descartes Prize citation (some have since changed):

Edward van den Heuvel - University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Jan van Paradijs - University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands (deceased)

Titus Galama - University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Paul Groot - University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Chryssa Kouveliotou - Marshall Space Flight Center, USA

John Heise - Space Research Organisation Netherlands (SRON)

Jean in't Zand - Space Research Organisation Netherlands (SRON)

Luigi Piro - Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) Rome, Italy

Enrico Costa - Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) Rome, Italy

Marco Feroci - Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) Rome, Italy

Filippo Frontera - University of Ferrara, Italy

Elena Pian - Trieste Astronomical Observatory, Italy

Luciano Nicastro - Istituto di fisica cosmica e applicazioni
dell'informatica (IFCAI), Palermo, Italy

Jens Hjorth - University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Holger Pederson - University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Alberto Castro-Tirado - Laboratorio de Astrofisica Espacial y Fisica
Fundamental (LAEFF), Granada, Spain

Jochen Greiner - Astrofisikalisches Institut Potsdam, Germany

Nial Tanvir - University of Cambridge, UK (now at University of

Martin Rees - University of Cambridge, UK

Ralph Wijers - University of Cambridge, UK (now at University of Amsterdam)