Research project of the year - Measuring gamma ray bursts

November 26, 2007

Liverpool John Moores University. Gamma ray bursts are one of the mysteries of the universe. But they are becoming less mysterious thanks to research being undertaken at Liverpool John Moores University.

In just six months, the LJMU team built an instrument that can measure these bursts, the most powerful explosions in the universe, which shine with the light of a billion billion suns for a few brief seconds.

Gamma ray bursts can occur in any direction at any time anywhere in the universe. Members of the team consider the rays "perfect extraterrestrial laboratories" in which new discoveries in physics can be made - but to be used as such they must be caught within minutes. To capture these ephemeral phenomena, the LJMU team developed and built Ringo, a "fast- track" instrument that can measure polarisation in a single shot using a fast-rotating polarising lens and prism. Traditional polarimeters are unable to measure rapidly varying sources such as the bursts.

Ringo was fitted on to the Liverpool Telescope in 2006 and set ready to wait for a burst. Within a few months, gamma rays from a burst known as GRB60418 were captured by the Liverpool telescope. At just 203 seconds after the onset of the gamma-ray explosion, the Ringo polarisation measurement was 100 times faster than any previously made.

Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said the team had made a "brilliantly innovative discovery into the fundamental nature of the universe that could have profound impacts in the decades ahead".

Fellow judge Peter Atkins, fellow and professor of chemistry at Lincoln College, Oxford, said: "Definitive experiments in cosmology are hard to implement and envisage, and the judges were impressed by the extent of teamwork involved in achieving a successful outcome."

The runner-up in this award was a Leeds University team that modified a bacterium that resides in the human gut in order to make it produce human- growth factors to treat inflammatory bowel disease.

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