Recent Texas PhD Receives Trumpler Award from Astronomical Society of the Pacific

2 April 2010

AUSTIN, Texas — The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) announced today that it is presenting the 2010 Robert J. Trumpler Award to Robert Quimby. The Society presents this award each year to a recent recipient of the PhD degree in North America whose research is considered unusually important to astronomy. Quimby completed his PhD in astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin in December 2006. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology.

Quimby’s dissertation, The Texas Supernova Search, details his search for the exploding stars known as supernovae using the ROTSE IIIb telescope at The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory.

“There were several supernova searches already under way when I designed my survey, so I tried to do something different,” Quimby said. “I decided to focus on early detection and rapid spectroscopic follow-up. I found fewer supernovae than others, but my unique sample led to some interesting science.”

His finds have opened up a new arena in supernova science. His work was featured in the New York Times, and Time magazine declared his discovery of supernova 2006gy as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2007.

Quimby’s research supervisor at Texas was supernova expert Dr. J. Craig Wheeler, with whom he continues to collaborate.

“Quimby made an impressive mark in our Department of Astronomy for hard work, inventiveness, and productivity,” Wheeler said. “Along with other substantial results, he discovered a whole new category of supernovae, the implications of which may reach back to the end of the cosmological dark ages. He had a spectacular record for a graduate student and well deserves the recognition of the Trumpler Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

“The capstone of Quimby’s work came toward the end of his graduate career. 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.

“Quimby subsequently identified four other ‘brightest supernovae ever,’ establishing the prototypes for this new field. SN 2006gy has many of the characteristics expected of so-called ‘pair instability supernovae’ that are theoretically predicted to occur in very massive stars, several hundred solar masses, that get hot enough to create electron/positron pairs. 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.

“These discoveries were not just luck,” Wheeler said. “Quimby made his opportunity, using the special capabilities of ROTSE [the Robotic Optical Transient Source Experiment] coupled with the rapid response of the queue-scheduled HET [Hobby-Eberly Telescope]. It is no coincidence that he discovered the first five examples of this new category of exploding star and hence started an exciting new field of astrophysical research.”

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Science Contacts:

Dr. Robert Quimby
California Institute of Technology

Dr. J. Craig Wheeler
The University of Texas at Austin