Max Planck researchers win part of Descartes Research Prize 2005

December 08, 2005

On December 2 the European Commission honoured the most successful intra- European research projects of the year. The Descartes Research Prize went to five different projects, awarding 200,000 euros each. Max Planck scientists played a major role in two of the winning projects: "PULSE -- European Pulsar Research" (Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy) and "CECA - Climate and Environmental Change in the Arctic" (Max Planck Institute for Meteorology).

The other prize winners were the projects EURO-PID (Immunology), EXEL (Materials Science), and ESS (Social Sciences). For the first time in 2005, five projects which made it to the final round were also awarded 30,000 euros each. One of them was the H.E.S.S. telescope (High Energy Stereoscopic System) in Namibia, also a project in which the Max Planck Society has taken part. The awards ceremony took place at the Royal Society in London.

The five Descartes Research Prize winners this year came from a broad spectrum of nominations in the areas of life sciences, engineering, physics, computer science, geosciences, and social sciences. German Max Planck Institutes were involved in two of the winning five.

CECA - Climate and Environmental Change in the Arctic

Research area: Environmental Sciences

CECA embraces a number of different multidisciplinary research projects over the last decade, dealing with the topic "Climate and Environmental Change in the Arctic".

This research work primarily had to do with natural climate fluctuations in the Arctic: particularly, the notable warmer and cooler periods over the last century. Scientists discovered that there was a strong interaction between atmospheric circulation and ice cover. Their investigations took them to the Barents Sea, where they found that in the 1930s, the higher temperatures had natural causes, but nowadays, warming is also due to human greenhouse gas emissions. In the last five years, both natural and man-made effects have led to more ice melting in the late summer. In 1979, there was 75 million square metres of ice cover; in September 2005, only 50 million square metres.

There is only a limited amount of data about the arctic region. So, CECA scientists had to analyse data sets from both observation and models in a systematic, integrated, and intensive way.

CECA's achievements and innovations have brought important new "state-of-the-art" knowledge about the arctic climatic system and its influence on Europe.

Project co-ordination:
Prof. Ola M. Johannessen, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (Norway), together with Prof. Lennart Bengtsson, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (Germany) and Dr. Leonid Bobylev, Scientific Foundation "Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre" (Russia)

PULSE - Pulsar Science in Europe: The Impact of European Pulsar Science on Modern Physics

Research area: Physics

Pulsars are neutron stars that rotate quickly, up to 600 times per second. They are compact -- only 20 kilometres in diameter -- leftovers of supernova explosions. Nonetheless they have a mass 1.4 times that of our sun, and a very strong magnetic field. They emit beams of radiation from two regions above their magnetic poles, using a mechanism that is not completely understood. When a pulsar rotates, we on Earth can receive these regular radio pulses. Because neutron stars have a high inertia, their pulse periods are quite stable -- they are like very precise clocks in outer space. Observing fluctuations in the pulse rates allows us to follow pulsar movements very closely. We can also learn about the properties of super-dense materials, the behaviour of plasma in strong magnetic fields, and a number of other extreme conditions in the universe.

Because it is very expensive to produce and use equipment to examine these stars, researchers across the continent created the European Pulsar Network (EPN, also known as PULSE). It began with the development of a common format to bring together data from very different measuring devices. One early PULSE success was when three European telescopes simultaneously observed radio pulses from pulsars at three different wavelengths. In co-operation with the Australian Telescope National Facility, members of the network helped develop new instruments and computer programs, co-ordinate observation programmes, and create a publicly accessible databank ( for all the observational information that was returned.

850 new pulsars were discovered thanks to this co-operation. This greatly exceeds the total number found over the last 30 years. Furthermore, the research team's greatest success was the discovery of the first double pulsar. That such a system exists at all is unusual, because its two components must have made it through a double supernova explosion.

Using pulsars as clocks, it is possible to measure how the presence of heavy bodies curves space-time. By observing pulsars, the researchers have shown repeatedly that close double neutron star systems send out strong gravitational waves.

The newly discovered double pulsar system has also helped beautifully to confirm Einstein's General Relativity Theory. In the system, all orbital parameters are directly astronomically confirmable, and the masses of both pulsars can be determined. But because of the effects predicted by relativity theory, five more independent mass calculations were possible. All gave the same result with great precision. This provided more evidence in favour of Einstein's theory about the connection between space, time, and material.

Project co-ordination: Prof. Andrew Lyne, University of Manchester (Great Britain), together with Prof. Nicolo D'amico, INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari (Italy), Dr. Axel Jessner, Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy (Germany), Dr. Ben Stappers, ASTRON (Netherlands) and Prof. Ioannis Seiradakis, University of Thessaloniki (Greece)

This year for the first time, in addition to the prize winners, five finalists also were awarded prize money. Max Planck researchers took part in one of the those projects:

HESS - The HESS Experiment: Revolutionizing the Understanding of the Extreme Universe

Research area: Physics

High-energy gamma-ray astronomy is a very new area of research. Using telescopes at the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) -- the world's most sensitive detector of high-energy gamma rays -- researchers looked at the central part of the Milky Way galaxy with unprecedented precision. They discovered a number of gamma-ray sources. Such high-energy radiation is difficult to find; even from a strong source, only about one gamma ray per month and square metre hits the top of our atmosphere. The gamma rays are absorbed into the Earth's atmosphere. Direct evidence for them would require an giant instrument on a satellite.

For these reasons, the H.E.S.S telescope uses a elaborate trick to circumvent the problems: it uses the atmosphere as a means of verification. When gamma rays are absorbed, they send out small flashes of so-called Cherenkov light -- a blue light that only lasts for a few billionths of a second. These lights are caught by the large mirrors and sensitive photo sensors at H.E.S.S. From this data, the scientists then create images of astronomical objects, using the "light" of high-energy gamma rays.

The H.E.S.S. telescopes were built and put into operation over many years by an international team of over 100 scientists and engineers from Germany, France, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Armenia, South Africa, and Namibia. In September 2004, the telescopes were officially inaugurated in the presence of Namibian Prime Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab. The first data have already produced a series of important discoveries, among them the first astronomical image of a supernova shock wave at extremely high gamma ray energies.

Project co-ordination:
Prof. Stavros Katsanevas, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), together with Prof. Werner Hofmann, Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics (Germany), Dr. Michael Punch, Institut National de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules (France), Dr. Paula Chadwick, University of Durham (Great Britain), Prof. Thomas Lohse, Humboldt University Berlin (Germany), Dr. Philippe Goret, Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (France), Prof. Götz Heinzelmann, University of Hamburg (Germany), Prof. Stefan Wagner, University of Heidelberg (Germany), Dr. Hélène Sol, Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers (France), Prof. Reinhard Schlickeiser, Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), Prof. Luke O'Connor Drury, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (Ireland), Prof. Ladislav Rob, Charles University (Czech Republic) and Prof. Ocker Comelis de Jager, North-West University (South Africa).

Rene Descartes Prizes 2005

The "Rene Descartes Prize for Excellence in Scientific Research" is given by the European Commission to research teams with excellent scientific or technological results and unusual achievements in cutting-edge research, that are also part of European co-operative projects. In contrast to the Nobel Prize, the million-euro Descartes Prize is given not to individual persons, but rather international research groups. Both criteria must be filled: scientific excellence, and intra-European co-operation. In addition, since the year 2004, the 50,000-euro Descartes Prize for Scientific Communication has been awarded to "exceptional science communicators for their success in bringing science and technology to wider audiences in Europe."
Related links:

[1] Descartes Research Prize

[2] The 14 Descartes Prize 2005 nominated research projects

[3] Max Planck Press Information on CECA

[4] Max Planck Press Information "Searching the Sources of Mysterious Particles from the Universe", September 23, 2004, on HESS


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