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Interview with Richard Ellis

Ellis, Richard (2014) Interview with Richard Ellis. [Oral History]

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Interview in eight sessions (January–February 2014) with Steele Professor of Astronomy Richard Ellis, whose life has taken him from a small coastal town in Wales to the edge of the universe. He recounts that trajectory in this oral history, starting with his upbringing and education in Wales and his youthful enthusiasm for astronomy, which he pursued through studies at University College London (B.Sc. 1971) and Oxford University (D.Phil. 1974). Having the good fortune to begin his career at the dawn of the “golden era” of British astronomy, he describes his years on the faculty of the University of Durham, where he worked with physics department head and future UK Astronomer Royal A. Wolfendale to develop the “Durham group” into an internationally recognized astronomy program. He talks about his work at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, his galactic and extragalactic studies carried out at British observatories and elsewhere, most notably the Anglo-Australian Telescope, and his involvement in mapping the future of British astronomy. In 1993, he became the Plumian Professor at the University of Cambridge and director of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, and in 1999 he joined the faculty of Caltech, where he served as director of Palomar Observatory/Caltech Optical Observatories (2000–05), carried out pioneering observations at the W. M. Keck Observatories and Hubble Space Telescope, and was centrally involved in still-ongoing efforts to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Ellis details his years of research in observational cosmology, probing galactic evolution and distribution at ever-higher redshifts, and his work on gravitational lensing and dark matter, the cosmic “dark ages” and cosmic dawn, and the pursuit of the most distant objects in the universe. He recalls his role in the 1987 discovery of the first cosmologically distant supernova and subsequent involvement in the supernova cosmology project, an investigation that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for three of its principal scientists. He talks about his collaborations and interactions with numerous colleagues and students, including D. Axon, R. Blandford, A. Boksenberg, G. Efstathiou, D. Lynden-Bell, J. Peebles, M. Rees, W. Sargent, D. Saxon, B. Tinsley, and T. Tombrello, and shares his perspectives on the science and sociology of the astrophysical communities in Great Britain and the United States. Recaps of his election to the UK Royal Society and his designation as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE)—the latter formalized at a Buckingham Palace reception with HRH Prince Charles—also form part of this oral history. Note: Occasional allusions in this manuscript to a Royal Society memoir or biography refer to an autobiography that Ellis was asked to prepare for the Royal Society at the time he was elected a Fellow in 1995. A copy of the bio is appended to this oral history.

Item Type:Oral History
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Ellis_R
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Official Citation:Ellis, Richard. Interview by Heidi Aspaturian. Pasadena, California, January – February 2014. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:Subjects > Astronomy
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ID Code:234
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:10 Jul 2015 18:34
Last Modified:11 Jan 2023 22:20

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