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UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 11 | July 12, 2001

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 and cosmology.

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. Dolph Schluter.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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