University of Leicester physicist receives highest UK science accolade

Posted by pt91 at May 20, 2011 10:30 AM |
Professor Stan Cowley joins select group of preeminent scientists elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society
University of Leicester physicist receives highest UK science accolade

Professor Stanley Cowley, Head of the University of Leicester Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 20 May 2011


Professor Stanley W H Cowley, Professor of Solar-Planetary Physics and Head of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Leicester, has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest honour UK science can bestow.

Professor Cowley receives the honour in recognition of more than forty years research which has led to a deeper understanding of the outer environments of Earth and the planets.

Over this period he has made a number of significant advances in his field that have led to a paradigm change in thinking.

Professor Cowley said:  “It’s a wonderful thing to have one’s work recognised in this way.  I would like to pay tribute to the excellent people I have worked with at Leicester over the past fifteen years, who have made important contributions to this programme.

“They range from senior colleagues to undergraduate students who have piloted many research projects and seen their work published.   Their constant willingness to ‘pull together’ in order to achieve the best research possible, with hard work and good humour, has been tremendously encouraging.

“Those involved should feel that this award also serves as a substantial endorsement of their own achievements.”

Professor Sir Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester. said: “I was delighted to learn of Professor Cowley’s election to the Royal Society.  It is testament to his many years of high quality research in the University of Leicester’s world renowned Physics and Astronomy Department and is very well deserved.  Becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society is an outstanding accolade and not only highlights the high quality work of Professor Cowley but also the standing of the Department and the University.  This great honour will provide a wide range of opportunities for Professor Cowley to continue to work with the leading scientists in the UK and worldwide.”

Professor Cowley is acknowledged internationally as an outstanding scientist and has already received some of the highest awards in his field.   They include the UK Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal and the Julius Bartels Medal from the European Geophysical Union (2006).

His research in solar-planetary physics is unusual in that it is a combination of theory, modelling and data analysis and spans a breadth rarely matched anywhere worldwide.

Professor Cowley came to Leicester from Imperial College, London, in 1996, joining the Department of Physics and Astronomy, which was internationally acclaimed for its space research.

This worldwide reputation is something he has built on.   “We play on the international scale,” he said   “I believe there’s no point in doing what we do unless we’re at least aspiring to be the best in the world at doing it.   The ethos is that we compete on the world stage, or we’re not competing.”

Space missions in which he has been involved include:

• The Cassini Saturn-orbiter project, a NASA, ESA and ASI mission that will be brought to an end in 2017

• The ESA Cluster mission, a group of four spacecraft orbiting Earth, relaying information about the environmental effects of the solar wind (a stream of hydrogen plasma from the Sun)

• Rosetta, also an ESA project, which will be the first mission to explore a comet, Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at close quarters, in 2014

• The NASA Juno mission, to be launched in August this year, due to begin orbiting Jupiter in 2016

While research into the outer planets and comets is principally exploratory, Professor Cowley’s work closer to home, on ‘space weather’, has a great deal of practical significance here on Earth.

Space weather is driven by the variability of the Sun’s activity and its outbursts flung in the direction of the Earth.   These can cause magnetic storms that affect the magnetosphere and ionosphere, and, through them, the Earth’s atmosphere.

This has implications for communications, meteorology, intelligence operations and remote sensing of land, sea and atmosphere.   Ionospheric disturbances also affect technologies that rely on long-distance radio propagation, including over-the-horizon radars and direction-finding systems.

Professor Cowley is one of eight research scientists from the University of Leicester to become Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) since the University received its Royal Charter in 1957.   These include his colleague in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Emeritus Professor Ken Pounds, and the world-renowned geneticist Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, who discovered DNA Fingerprinting.

Four Emeritus Professors from Leicester are FRS: Ken Pounds (Physics and Astronomy), Harry Smith (Biology), Peter Sneath (Microbiology) and Ron Whittam (Physiology).

Five University of Leicester Chancellors – Lord Adrian, Sir Alan Hodgkin, Sir George Porter, Sir Michael Atiyah and Sir Peter Williams - are or were Fellows as were Thomas Tutin and Winifred Pennington, husband and wife who both worked at Leicester as botanists.

Former recipients are: Professor Sir Hans Kornberg (Biochemistry), Professor Charles Reece (Chemistry), Professor Harry Smith (Biology), Professor P H A Sneath (Microbiology), Professor M R C Symons (Chemistry) and Professor R Whittam (Physiology).

Notes to Editors: Further details are available from Professor Stanley W H Cowley, Head of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Leicester, tel +44 116 223 1331, email 

See also the website:

The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of science.  Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as a provider of independent scientific advice, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. Our expertise is embodied in the Fellowship, which is made up of the finest scientists from the UK and beyond.  Our goals are to:

• Invest in future scientific leaders and in innovation

• Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice

• Invigorate science and mathematics education

• Increase access to the best science internationally

• Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery

For further information please visit Follow the Royal Society on Twitter at or on Facebook at

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