UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 11 | July
Royal Society of London discovers UBC physicist/astronomer
Sonic black holes, accelerating particles, quantum physics and
hot space earn recognition for scientist
by Hilary Thomson staff writer
Bill Unruh becomes UBC's newest member of the Royal Society of
London in a ceremony in England July 13. He is one of four Canadians
to be so honoured. A professor of Physics and Astronomy and a faculty
member since 1976, Unruh is recognized for solving problems of science
found at the crossroads of quantum physics, gravitational theory
As an explanation for his success, Unruh refers to his favourite
quotation from poet William Blake: "`If a fool would persist in
his folly, he would become wise.' I'm grateful that society allows
me and other scientists to persist."
He is best known for his work showing that particles of matter
that undergo extreme accelerations behave as though empty
space around them is hot, with the temperature in proportion to
the acceleration. The effect relates to physicist Stephen Hawking's
discovery that black holes are also hot objects. Black holes are
regions of space having a gravitational field so intense that no
matter or radiation can escape.
Unruh also discovered a phenomenon that can exist in sound and
is similar to something Hawking called black hole evaporation
Sonic black holes -- which Unruh dubs dumb holes -- exist in a
region where a fluid flows faster than the speed of sound. Unruh
argues that `hot' sound waves are created in these conditions through
a poorly understood quantum process related to black holes.
Another of Unruh's research areas is quantum computation: using
quantum laws to design computers able to solve certain problems
billions of times faster than traditional equipment. He also teaches
Arts undergraduates about the physics of music. Using items such
as dissected guitars and hosepipes, he introduces students to physics
and how a physicist thinks.
"A physicist always looks for the similarities in things," he
says. "A child swinging and a trombone playing have much in common
from a physics perspective. The oscillating or swaying movement
is the connection."
The first director of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research
(CIAR) Cosmology program, Unruh credits CIAR for creating a network
of researchers that makes Canada one of the world's top-ranked countries
for physics research.
"This is another endorsement of the stature of our researchers
in the international academic community -- Bill is simply outstanding,"
says Indira Samarasekera, vice-president, Research.
Founded in 1660 to recognize contributions to science, the Royal
Society of London has 1,300 members and is regarded as an academy
of the world's most eminent researchers.
Other UBC Royal Society members include Mathematics Prof. Emeritus
Colin Clark, Prof. Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology Julian
Davies, Physics Prof. Emeritus Maurice Pryce, and Zoology Prof.