Astronomy and Astrophysics at Edinburgh

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Physics and Astronomy


An astonishing feature of modern astrophysical research is that we have in principle a chain of explanation that stretches from processes on cosmological scales of billions of light years, down to the creation of stars, planets around the stars and life on the planets. In a sense, this process is almost a closed loop: the early Universe was once of sub-nuclear scale, so that quantum mechanical uncertainty is bound to seed fluctuations in density, which eventually collapse under gravity to make astronomical structures. This is the same physics of the very small that governs the formation of the atoms out of which we are all made.

But unanswered questions abound at all stages of this process. Our theories of the early Universe and explanations of its current expansion rest on the concept that empty space can have weight: the so-called "dark energy". We need to study its properties and understand its origin. In so doing, we often assume that Einstein's relativity describes gravity correctly on all scales, but can we test this? If the standard theory is correct, dark matter is required, and we are driven to follow the processes by which it clumps, and by which the gas within these clumps evolves and eventually collapses to form stars and massive black holes. New large telescopes on the ground, together with observing platforms in space such as the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, allow us to see this process in action and compare the observations with detailed computer simulations. Nearer to home, we can dissect galaxies such as our own Milky Way into individual stars, for the most detail view of how they were assembled. And finally we can study how planets arise around these stars, both from new instruments that can detect the presence of "exo-planets" and by computer simulations of how they may be created within the discs of gas and dust left over from star formation. Ultimately, one can refine the search to planets potentially capable of supporting life, and ask how life might arise within these early planetary systems.

Research in astronomy at Edinburgh attacks all of these connected questions. Progress is rapid, driven by technological breakthroughs in observational facilities and computing power, and our understanding is evolving rapidly. Major progress, even if not final answers, can be expected within a few years. This is an exciting time for our understanding of the full history and structure of our Universe and our place within it.

Planned Impact

Details of our Pathways to Impact are provided in the separate 2-page attachment. In brief, we carry out an extensive programme of public engagement and knowledge transfer, implemented in collaboration with the UK ATC, and our own Wide Field Astronomy Unit. Much stems directly from the research activities that are the subject of this application.

Our work in knowledge transfer and exploitation is exemplified by the case study of MOPED and the resulting spin-out company Blackford Analysis. MOPED (Massively Optimised Parameter Estimation and Data compression) is a unique process that employs a massive data compression step, enabling very rapid analysis without compromising accuracy. The MOPED algorithm was designed at the IfA by Prof. Alan Heavens and Dr Benjamin Panter to solve problems in cosmology, but has since been successfully applied to a number of medical applications, the most obvious being the ability of MOPED to speed up 3-D MRI image reconstruction to the point where it would no longer be necessary to immobilize children with a general anaesthetic for MRI scans. A spin-out company, Blackford Analysis Ltd, started trading in August 2010, has received significant investment, and now employs 9 people in the UK (sited at ROE, allowing continued academic interaction), developing very rapid image alignment tools for the medical imaging market. There has been direct user-engagement in the medical imaging field, through researchers, clinicians and industry luminaries, as well as MRI scanner manufacturers and PACS vendors. Recently Blackford Analysis has expanded its work into applications in other areas, securing a two-year consultancy contract with Rolls Royce worth £65,000, and identifying further commercial applications of MOPED in security imaging and in the oil and gas industries.

The case of Blackford Analysis exemplifies how novel techniques developed for astronomical research can be effectively applied to have a major impact in wider society. We plan to replicate this success through the University of Edinburgh's involvement in the new Higgs Centre for Innovation (to be completed at ROE by spring 2016). The Higgs Centre aims to ensure that further technologies, algorithms, and techniques from any of ATC instrumentation, IfA research, or WFAU data handling are effectively transferred to industry through close interactions between our academics/PDRAs and the public and private sectors (with the potential to create of further spinout companies from the STFC incubator). We are also taking the Big Data initiative, and interaction with the commercial sector, very seriously. (i) We have a long tradition of designing and developing new data centre facilities in active collaboration with local companies, who then use their experience with other commercial customers. (ii) As part of leading a proposal for UK participation in LSST, we are working with STFC to identify BIS infrastructure funding to work with industry. (iii) We are currently advertising for a new position specialising in novel data handling techniques.

We are also involved in a particularly vigorous programme of Public Outreach, Engagement & Education, under the auspices of the ROE Visitor Centre (; jointly funded by the University and STFC) that draws directly on the cutting-edge research supported by our STFC Consolidated grant. Within the UK university sector, this programme is unusual in its breadth and scope, extending well beyond the normal expectation of public talks, press releases and media interviews. This is in part because university staff, PDRAs and students have the opportunity to work collaboratively with Visitor Centre Staff, but is also due to the unique advantages afforded by the ROE site, with its unusual combination of front-line astronomical research, world-leadiing instrument development, and astronomical history/heritage. Further details of activities and impact are provided in the Pathways to Impact attachment.


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Abbott B (2017) Multi-messenger Observations of a Binary Neutron Star Merger in The Astrophysical Journal

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Agarwal B (2016) Detecting direct collapse black holes: making the case for CR7 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Agarwal B (2017) Effects of binary stellar populations on direct collapse black hole formation in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters

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Agarwal B (2017) Metallicity evolution of direct collapse black hole hosts: CR7 as a case study in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Agarwal B (2016) New constraints on direct collapse black hole formation in the early Universe in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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Agarwal Bhaskar (2015) Detecting Direct Collapse Black Holes: making the case for CR7 in ArXiv e-prints