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UH Astronomer Wins Major Cosmology Prize

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June 10, 2014


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Dr. R. Brent Tully

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R. Brent Tully
R. Brent Tully. Photo by Igor Karachentsev.

University of Hawaii at Manoa astronomer R. Brent Tully is one of four recipients of the 2014 Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize for his role in understanding the structure and evolution of the nearby universe.

At UH since 1975, Tully came to prominence with the publication of a 1977 paper, written with J. Richard Fisher, proposing a relationship between the masses of galaxies and their luminosities. Measure the mass of a galaxy, and you’ll know the galaxy’s true brightness. Compare the true brightness with its observed brightness, and you’ll know its distance (much as you could calculate the distance of a light bulb if you knew its wattage). The “Tully-Fisher relation” remains a standard tool in astronomy to this day. It has allowed astronomers to determine distances to galaxies,the key measurement that allows us to view the universe in three dimensions.

In 1988, Tully published The Nearby Galaxies Catalog, along with the Nearby Galaxies Atlas, the first major attempt to illustrate the three-dimensional distribution of galaxies. Using 3-D locations approximated from redshifts (the lengthening of wavelengths of light as objects move away from Earth) and a simple model, he mapped the locations of 2,400 nearby galaxies. At intervals, Tully has also published catalogs of directly measured distances. The most recent, released in 2013, provides distances for over 8,000 galaxies, which is the largest assembly of distances currently available.

Tully shares the $500,000 prize with Jaan Einasto (Tartu Observatory, Estonia), Kenneth Freeman (Australian National University), and Sidney van den Bergh, a retired Canadian astronomer. The prize will be presented to them in a ceremony at Yale University on October 1.

Their award-winning work on the nearby universe emerged during a period when cutting-edge cosmology was focused on the farthest reaches of the universe. This work, however, stayed closer to home—and the present. It has allowed cosmologists to examine the mature universe and work their way backward in time.

Operating independently of one another, the four astronomers studied our Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in the Local Group, and other relatively nearby objects, devising strategies and making discoveries that have led to two fundamental changes in our interpretation of the universe:

  • On the largest scales, the universe resembles a web of neurons—vast filaments of galaxies and superclusters of galaxies separated by even vaster voids.
  • This structure would not be possible if the universe didn’t have an invisible gravitational component—what we now call “dark matter.”

“We want to recognize their pioneering contributions to the understanding of the structure and composition of the nearby universe,” says Wendy Freedman, chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the Prize. “Their decades-long observations and analyses of relatively local galaxies have allowed cosmologists—including themselves—to investigate the evolution of the universe on the largest scales.”

The Gruber International Prize Program honors individuals in the fields of cosmology, genetics and neuroscience whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture. The Selection Advisory Boards choose individuals whose contributions in their respective fields advance our knowledge and potentially have a profound impact on our lives. The Cosmology Prize honors a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist or scientific philosopher for theoretical, analytical, conceptual or observational discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe.

For more about Dr.Tully’s work, see A Video Map of Motions in the Nearby Universe,

For more information on the Gruber Prizes, visit Media materials and additional background information on the Gruber Prizes can be found at

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii.