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Australia gives Davies national award

December 04, 2007

ASU professor Paul Davies recently was honored during an investiture ceremony at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., for his induction as a Member of the Order of Australia.

The honor, part of the Australian Honours System, was awarded to Davies “for service to science, particularly the disciplines of physics, cosmology and astrobiology, as an educator, author and public commentator.”

Dennis Richardson, Australia’s ambassador to the United States, presented Davies with an insignia set, including a medal, during the Oct. 29 embassy ceremony.

Davies, who holds dual citizenship in Britain and Australia, has had an expansive career teaching and conducting research at universities in Britain and Australia before joining ASU in August 2006 as a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also established a cosmic think tank at ASU known as Beyond, the Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science.

Davies previously was a professor of natural philosophy (the old name for physics) in the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Maquarie University in Sydney.

“I am honored that my longstanding commitment to engaging the community with the excitement and importance of science has been publicly recognized with this respected national award,” Davies says.

Davies, a native Londoner who began his career at University College in London working in theoretical astrophysics, left to join cosmologist Fred Hoyle at the University of Cambridge, where he worked alongside Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees. When, in 1975, Hawking turned physics upside-down by predicting that black holes glow with heat and slowly evaporate away, Davies was determined to figure out precisely how the heat energy originated. By then, he had moved back to London University, to the mathematics department at King’s College.

In collaboration with visiting postdoctoral students Stephen Fulling and Bill Unruh, the answer soon emerged from a welter of mathematics: black holes shrink not because energy is coming out, but because negative energy is flowing in. A byproduct from this research was the conclusion, drawn independently by Davies and Unruh, that totally dark empty space should appear to a rapidly accelerating observer to be aglow with heat radiation, a phenomenon now known as the Davies-Unruh effect.

Those discoveries paved the way for a more extensive analysis of how gravitation and quantum physics do business with each other – a problem that continues to exercise the minds of the world’s greatest physicists. With his doctoral students Tim Bunch and Nicholas Birrell, Davies helped develop the theory of quantum fields propagating in curved background space-time, a project that culminated in the widely used book “Quantum Fields in Curved Space.” By applying these ideas to the “Big Bang” theory, Bunch and Davies helped lay the foundations for the widely accepted inflation theory for the origin of the universe.

When, in the early 1990s, NASA’s satellite observatory COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) discovered the famous “ripples” in the thermal afterglow of the big bang, cosmologists cited “the Bunch-Davies quantum vacuum state” as a ready explanation.
In 1990, Davies left the United Kingdom to work in Australia, first as a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Adelaide, then at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Davies – who is known for circumnavigating the globe as an author of 27 books, and as a provocative speaker – was among the first scientists to suggest that life may have started on Mars and come to Earth inside rocks splattered off the Red Planet by comet impacts.

“People pooh-poohed my idea at first,” Davies says. “But now it is widely accepted that Mars and Earth may have traded microbes when they traded rocks.”

At about the same time, Davies was one of a handful of cosmologists to propose the existence of so-called “dark energy,” a type of antigravity that speeds up the expansion of the universe. It was at that time a deeply unpopular theory, but several years later astronomers discovered, to their astonishment, that dark energy really exists.

Throughout his career, Davies has maintained a strong interest in the nature of time and its relationship to cosmology.

“It’s probably my longest-running research project,” he says.

It formed the basis of his first research book “The Physics of Time Asymmetry,” published in 1974, and also sparked his popular book “How to Build a Time Machine,” published in 2001.

Besides his research, Davies also is known as a television and radio broadcaster. Among his better-known productions were a series of 45-minute BBC Radio 3 programs on fundamental science. Two of these became successful books, and one, “Desperately Seeking Superstrings,” won the Glaxo Science Writers Fellowship. His television projects include two six-part Australian series, “The Big Questions” and “More Big Questions,” and a 2003 documentary on the BBC about his work in astrobiology titled “The Cradle of Life.”