Fall 2008 Recipients

Robert Quimby

Robert Quimby

J. Craig Wheeler
J. Craig Wheeler

Recent University of Texas at Austin doctoral graduate Robert Quimby, now at the California Institute of Technology, and his advisor, University of Texas at Austin astronomy professor J. Craig Wheeler, were selected as the second recipients of the Robert S. Hyer Award from the Texas Section of the American Physical Society. This award recognizes excellence in physics-related research and potential impact in the relevant scientific community by a student and her/his advisor at a Texas institution of higher education.

The award was presented Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008 during a lunch ceremony as part of the two-day Texas Physics 2008 conference held jointly with the Four Corners Section on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso. Each scientist received a plaque, and Quimby also received a $500 prize.

Wheeler is the long-time leader of supernova research in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. He was instrumental in bringing the Michigan-led Robotic Transient Source Experiment (ROTSE) telescope to McDonald Observatory with the goal of helping to discover cosmic gamma-ray bursts and related transient events. The Hyer Award recognized Quimby’s work on his Texas Supernova Search that coupled discovery of new supernovae with ROTSE to follow-up spectroscopy with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory. Quimby discovered two of the most intrinsically bright supernovae ever detected, supernovae 2006gy and 2005ap, among others.

Wheeler said “Quimby made a large mark in our Department of Astronomy for hard work, inventiveness, and productivity. He discovered a whole new category of supernovae, the implications of which may reach back to the end of the cosmological dark ages.”

Quimby recognized that the wide field of view of the ROTSE telescopes allowed a deep survey of the entire Virgo cluster of galaxies in a few hours. No other automated search project can tackle this; the field of Virgo is just too large. Quimby’s idea promised the ability to discover new supernovae extremely early when their physics is unexplored and when early discovery enhances the chance of detailed follow-up at all epochs. Quimby started the Texas Supernova Search in the spring of 2004. After early success, he expanded this project by including the Coma and Ursa Major clusters and the nearby Andromeda galaxy.

The capstone of Quimby’s work, and the specific rationale for the Hyer Award, came toward the end of his graduate career. While observing the nearby clusters of galaxies, Quimby’s ROTSE observations with their wide field of view also surveyed a vast volume of space beyond those clusters. In that volume, he discovered SN 2006gy that proved to be nearly 100 times brighter than any supernova previously observed. This event rose to maximum light in an unusually long 70 days. It was something completely different. Since then Quimby has identified four other “brightest supernovae ever,” including the current record holder SN 2005ap. SN 2006gy has many of the expected characteristics of so-called “pair instability supernovae” that are theoretically predicted to occur in very massive stars, with several hundred solar masses, which get hot enough to create electron/positron pairs. This softens the equation of state, and causes the oxygen core to contract, heat, and explode. These stars are theoretically expected to be among the first stars to form at the end of the cosmological dark ages, but Quimby may have found them in relatively nearby, contemporary galaxies, although alternative explanations involving collision of the supernova with circumstellar matter are being actively explored. This work got great press, including coverage in the New York Times, and it was number three on the list of Time Magazine’s Top Ten Scientific Discoveries for 2007. 

Wheeler said “it is a great honor and pleasure to receive this award from the Texas physics community that acknowledges work in astrophysics.”

For more information on Quimby’s and Wheeler’s research, visit: