Richard Ellis was born in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, in 1950, the son of a captain in the British Merchant Navy and a secretary to the headmaster at a state school. At the age of six, while browsing the shelves at the local public library, he came across Out Into Space, a novel about two children exploring the universe through a telescope in an uncle’s back yard. As Ellis has written, that literary encounter “set me on a course of reading everything I could about astronomy.” As an astronomer himself, Ellis has made several contributions to the popular literature, most recently his 2022 reflections on his adventures in cosmology, When Galaxies Were Born (Princeton University Press).
Ellis received a Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy from University College London in 1971 and his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1974. Over the past five decades he has occupied academic and research positions at (in chronological order) the University of Durham, Royal Greenwich Observatory, University of Cambridge, California Institute of Technology, University of Oxford, and University College London. He has served as the senior scientist at the European Southern Observatory as well as the director of both the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge and the Palomar Observatory (now Caltech Optical Observatories).
Among the many honors that Ellis has received are the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Medal from the Royal Society, the Michael Faraday Gold Medal from the Institute of Physics, and the Carl Sagan Memorial Award from the American Astronautical Society and The Planetary Society. He has also received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the University of Durham and Edinburgh University. Ellis is a fellow of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the American Society for the Advancement of Physics, the Australian Academy of Sciences, and University College London. In 2008 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He has published more than 600 scientific articles, which have received roughly 135,000 citations.