Sir Martin Rees is one of the most eminent theoretical astrophysicists of our time. His work is characterized by deep insight. He is among the most far-ranging scientists, having made important contributions to our understanding of the formation of galaxies, the nature of the cosmic microwave background, quasars, black holes, gamma-ray bursts and many other subjects.
Professor Rees is particularly interested in compact objects. Neutron stars and black holes lie at the center of many astronomical phenomena, ranging from X-ray binary stars to powerful quasars at the centers of galaxies. Among his many contributions, he promoted the idea that infall onto super massive black holes power quasars and active galactic nuclei and he used observations of the light observed from these objects to develop detailed models for the physical processes taking place close to the black hole. His explanation of rapid variability in these objects included the spectacular prediction of apparent superluminal motion in their radio emission. He predicted that massive black holes would be found at the center of our Galaxy and others. Much of his work over the past decade has been focused on the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts, which, due largely to work of Professor Rees and his colleagues, we now believe are due to explosive processes occurring in the vicinity of neutron stars.
Professor Rees has also been a leader in understanding the structure and evolution of the universe. He contributed many of the foundational ideas about galaxy formation, particularly regarding the important role of gas and dissipation. In his quest to explain how the universe emerged from the cosmic ‘dark ages’, he has examined how the first generations of stars, galaxies, and quasars formed and then ionized much of the universe. He made the first predictions about polarization and other detailed features of the cosmic microwave background.
Both within and beyond astrophysics proper, Professor Rees has had broad impact on how we think about the universe. He has probed deeply into questions on the borders between science and philosophy, why the universe has the characteristics that it has and how humans as sentient beings fit into this universe. Through his books, papers, and his students, he has been tremendously influential in setting the research agenda and stimulating investigations in all the many fields he has worked in.
As Astronomer Royal, Professor Rees has been an international expositor of astronomy for both scientists and lay publics for decades. He is a masterful public speaker, and through his many popular books on astronomy and cosmology, has fascinated many with his erudition in describing the wonders of the universe.
By Michael Strauss, Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University
and Michael Vogeley, Department of Physics, Drexel University, Philadelphia