Three Trinity Fellows elected to the Royal Society

Marian Holness, Professor of Earth Sciences, Hugh Osborn, Professor of Mathematics, and Didier Queloz, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Physics, join the Royal Society’s prestigious Fellowship. They are among 10 Cambridge academics and 62 scholars from around the world selected for their outstanding contribution to scientific understanding in the Royal Society’s 2020 cohort.

President of the Royal Society and Trinity Fellow, Dr Venki Ramakrishnan, said he was delighted to celebrate their achievements and welcome the 51 new Fellows, 10 Foreign Members and an Honorary Fellow to the Society.

At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity.

While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance. This year’s Fellows and Foreign Members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning.

The new Trinity Fellows of the Royal Society tell us what they are most proud of, what they gain from their academic lives, and the focus of their next research project.

Professor Marian Holness, Department of Earth Sciences

‘The best part of research is when you are hit out of the blue with a blinding revelation that makes sense of masses of observations that you’ve been accumulating and puzzling over for ages. The first time this happened to me was about a year after my PhD, when I was wandering around the Skye hills, trying to make sense of a particular form of stripes that developed in the marbles I had been studying. I’d carefully side-stepped them in my thesis, as I had absolutely no idea what they were all about, but the act of meandering around, slack-jawed with puzzlement, made me see that the stripes had a clearly defined spatial distribution: suddenly there was that blinding revelation and I immediately understood how they had formed during the metamorphosis of limestone into marble.

Moments like that are rare but well worth the wait. I was lucky enough to have a whole series of them last time I was doing fieldwork in Greenland, on an ancient example of a magma chamber that is now exposed at the surface: it has the Danish name Skaergaard, which roughly translates as the place with lots of little rocky islets. During my three previous visits, I had unwittingly accrued a critical mass of un-processed observations that had been stewing quietly away in the back of my brain for several years. Coming back and seeing everything with fresh eyes triggered a revelation almost every day for the month we were there: albeit exhausted by the continuous mental buffeting, I came away with a deep understanding of what happens to molten basalt when you leave it to cool and crystallise in the Earth’s crust.

The next big question for me is the behaviour of more silica-rich magmas like granites. The ones I am currently eyeing up form the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains in California. The problems they pose are the same but different: the magma is very sticky, so the fluid dynamic behaviour of the system is very different to the runnier basaltic ones, and the bears are brown instead of white (and, on the whole, better-mannered).’

Professor Hugh Osborn, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics

‘I am immensely proud of being in Cambridge and being attached to Trinity over a long period as a Fellow in the teaching staff, and also for some years as a tutor. In particular I hope I have contributed to the continuing excellence of mathematics in the College. I have  always endeavoured to combine teaching and research and have enjoyed carrying out supervisions with many talented undergraduates over many years.

Interacting with students has always proved to be a great stimulus. My research has very much involved working with a succession of PhD students; three of the most successful were all from Trinity.

My main area of interest has been quantum field theory and in particular a special case called conformal field theory. For a long time this was very unfashionable but interest in the past decade has blossomed hugely and it is now regarded as an important subject in its own right. I have several projects under way in this area which I hope will contribute to the general development of this subject. I must particularly express my gratitude to Francis Dolan, who was a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity some 15 years ago and with whom I wrote several papers. Without the benefit of our collaboration my election to a FRS would never have happened.’

Professor Didier Queloz, the Cavendish Laboratory

Photo: Nick Saffell, Cambridge University

‘I am proud when my work inspires others and particularly when it stimulates the next generation of scientists.

As a scientist if you don’t give to society what is your purpose? We have a very privileged position and we should definitely engage with society. I think we do not engage enough. Society tends to be a bit sceptical and often people don’t understand what scientists do, so I think we should do a better job here. Every scientist should have this activity as part of their portfolio.

I am a bit obsessed with detecting an Earth twin on nearby stars and to make progress towards understanding the origin of life. What the universe is made of – that is still something about which there are a lot of unknowns. We don’t know what dark matter is for example. Then there is the origin of the galaxy – why do we have galaxies and stars and planets? We don’t know. Then there is life. It’s all about understanding where we sit, from the farther away, the biggest, to the microscopic, which is life.’

 

The other new Cambridge Fellows of the Royal Society are Professor Kevin Brindle, Professor Vikram Deshpande, Professor Giles Oldroyd, Professor Jack Thorne, Professor Stephen Young, Dr Sarah Teichmann, who studied at Trinity and was a Fellow of the College, 1999-2015, and Dr William Schafer.

Read more about the scientists elected to the Royal Society in 2020.

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