R. Brent Tully was born in Toronto in 1943. He received his Bachelor of Science from the University of British Columbia in 1964 and his doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1972. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the Observatoire de Marseille from 1972 to 1975.
Tully has worked as an astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii since 1975. He also has served as a visiting scientist at a number of institutions, including the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, the Observatoire de Meudon in Paris, the Istituto di Radioastronomia in Bologna, and the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice.
Tully was one of the pioneers of a branch of astronomy now called Near Field Cosmology. By looking at the nearby universe for clues, he and the fellow practitioners of the field have made significant contributions to our understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies and of the universe itself, with its weblike pattern of filaments of clusters and superclusters separated by vast voids of empty space. Their growth on all scales is highly dependent on the gravitational influence of dark matter.
In 1977 Tully and his collaborator J. Richard Fisher discovered a relationship between the mass of galaxies and their luminosities that allows astronomers to calculate distances to galaxies, thereby endowing maps of the universe with a third dimension. In 1988, Tully published The Nearby Galaxies Catalog, along with the Nearby Galaxies Atlas, the first major attempt to illustrate the 3D distribution of galaxies. Using 3D locations approximated from redshifts and a simple model, he mapped 2400 nearby galaxies. At intervals, Tully has also published catalogs of directly measured distances. The most recent, in 2013, released distances for over 8,000 galaxies, which is the largest assembly of distance currently available.
Tully is an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has received a distinguished alumnus award from the University of Maryland and a University of Hawaii Regents Medal for Outstanding Research. He was also the honoree at a workshop in Sydney celebrating his sixtieth birthday and one in Marseille celebrating his seventieth.