Knighthood for groundbreaking UofG astrophysicist

A pioneering University of Glasgow researcher who helped deliver the historic first detection of gravitational waves has received a knighthood in recognition of his contribution to physics and astronomy.

James Hough, Research Professor in Natural Philosophy in the School of Physics and Astronomy, was made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by the Duke of Cambridgeduring a ceremony at Buckingham Palace today (Thursday 31 January).

Professor Hough joined the University of Glasgow in 1963 as an undergraduate student and has worked in the field of astrophysics at Glasgow ever since. He was the first director of the University’s Institute for Gravitational Research, established in 2000, and has played leading roles in international gravitational wave detection collaborations including those based around the UK-German GEO600 detector, located in Germany, and the US-led LIGO detectors, working alongside scientists in the European Virgo detector, located in Pisa.

The LIGO collaboration’s detectors, based in Washington and Louisiana in the United States, made the first direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015, a century after their existence was deduced by Albert Einstein.

The detection relied on extremely precise measurements of ripples in spacetime caused by the collision of a pair of black holes. This was achieved using laser interferometers capable of measuring shifts of less than a thousandth of the diameter of a proton, or about a million million millionth of a metre across.

Professor Hough, as one of the lead scientists of the UK/German GEO600 team, developed techniques essential to isolate the mirrors of the detectors enabling LIGO to reach the sensitivity required for the discovery. Since that first detection, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations have made other significant discoveries including gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars and further black hole mergers.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said: “The first detection of gravitational waves was a literally universe-shaking achievement which now underpins the rapidly-expanding new field of gravitational wave astronomy.

“Jim Hough’s tireless, decades-long pursuit of these elusive signals has been an inspiration to physicists and astronomers, both here in Glasgow and around the world. It’s wonderful to see his dedication and ingenuity recognised with this knighthood, which he so richly deserves.”

Professor Hough said: “I’m very proud to have been knighted in recognition of my work as an astrophysicist. It’s a tremendous honour, and it demonstrates the impact that gravitational wave astronomy has had on our understanding of the universe. I’ll be returning to work at the University of Glasgow with a renewed enthusiasm for exploring space with gravitational waves, and I look forward to further exciting discoveries.”

Professor Bernard Schutz, from Cardiff University’s Gravity Exploration Institute, one of the University of Glasgow’s partners in the LIGO collaboration, said: “Jim’s knighthood recognises his central place in the story of how gravitational waves were detected. So many of the key technologies and of the most talented experimenters in the field came out of Jim’s Glasgow group over the last 40 years. He got me into this research long ago, and ever since it has been a pleasure working with Jim. A brilliant scientist, superb mentor, and genuine gentleman.”

Professor Hough’s knighthood is the latest in a string of honours which includes a Royal Medal, a President’s Medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the 2018 European Physical Society Edison Volta Prize.