Paul Murdin receives the 2012 Royal Astronomical Society Award

Professor Murdin has led a very active research life, largely focusing on high-energy astrophysics and the properties of objects identified by early X-ray satellites. Here he explains what this involved: “In 1971, I identified the first stellar black hole in our Galaxy, a star called Cygnus X-1. I put together X-ray astronomy data from telescopes on satellites with data that I obtained with optical telescopes to provide the chain of logic that made a black hole the only possible answer to the question 'what sort of star could produce all these phenomena?' This conclusion has since been supported by further data and the identification of many more examples of black holes in our Galaxy and others. I went on to apply similar techniques when I was one of the half dozen first scientific staff of the Anglo Australian Observatory near Sydney and made several more discoveries of a similar nature.”

Throughout his career, Paul has attempted to communicate the excitement of astronomy to a wider audience through popular books: by broadcasting in programmes like BBC Radio Four's In our time, in frequent interviews on astronomical news stories, in appearances on BBC television’s Sky at Night and in numerous public lectures such as at the 2010 Guardian Hay Festival.

After his return from Australia, Paul describes how he added a more managerial role to his research activities: “I worked at the Royal Greenwich Observatory on the development and building of the UK-Dutch observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands, and then became its first operational head (1981-1987). It was for this work and my popularisations in support of astronomy and, hence, of science that I was given an OBE in 1988. After a short period as Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (1991-1993), I joined the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council where I was responsible for developing the UK's astronomy and space research policy, including our participation in the European Space Science Programme.”

His important contribution to the wider astronomical community was as Treasurer of the Royal Astronomical Society, where he oversaw a growth in the Fellowship from about 2,800, a level it had been at for some time, to 3,500 at the end of his ten-year tenure. Supported by greater financial strength, the RAS took on a wider advocacy role, representing the astronomical community more effectively to government, the public and the Research Councils.

He emphasises the following aspects of this period: “I used the money that I helped generate to refocus the Society on its members and to develop its activities in the way that its members wanted. In particular I presided over the growth of its primary research journal into the largest international journal in astronomy; it doubled its annual output over my ten years. I also initiated the renovation of the Society's building and its ways of operating, so that the RAS could be more effective in the modern age.”

Nowadays, Paul is a Visiting Professor at Liverpool John Moores University and a Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Institute of Astronomy here at the University of Cambridge. He was particularly pleased to be told earlier this year that a main-belt asteroid discovered in Arizona in 2004 and catalogued as 128562 (2004 PM90), has been named 'Murdin'. He says, modestly, “It orbits between Mars and Jupiter, and, I am glad to say, is unlikely ever to crash into the Earth. A small world, with nothing much to distinguish it from the 126,561 others discovered and catalogued heretofore, but my very own (in a certain sense)!”