Swansea University Professor awarded esteemed Research Merit Award

Professor Gert Aarts, from the Physics Department, in the College of Science at Swansea University, has been awarded the esteemed Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.

The awards established in 2000 by The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, recognises excellence in the field of research and awards funding to seek to retain or recruit outstanding researchers for the UK.

Professor Aarts joins the honorary list of 27 newly appointed Wolfson Research Merit Award holders. This year’s award holders are working on a wide range of project topics including the use of personalised genome data for cancer treatment, climate tipping points, and the exploration of Mars.

Jointly funded by the Wolfson Foundation and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Merit Award scheme aims to provide universities with additional support to enable them to attract science talent from overseas and retain respected UK scientists of outstanding achievement and potential.

In his research, Professor Aarts explores the behaviour of strongly interacting matter under extreme conditions: how do quarks and gluons, the fundamental building blocks of matter, respond to very high temperature or pressure, present in the early Universe or inside neutron stars? Under normal conditions, quarks are confined in protons and neutrons, which together with electrons make up the elements in the Periodic Table. However, at temperatures of around 1012 K protons and neutrons dissolve and a new state of matter is formed: the so-called quark-gluon plasma. Obviously, these extreme temperatures cannot easily be reached and it takes a particle accelerator such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to carry out experimental studies. In recent years CERN has produced many exciting results on the quark-gluon plasma, by colliding lead ions with unprecedented energies.

As a theoretical particle physicist, Professor Aarts investigates properties of this new state of matter from the safety of his office in the Vivian Tower on the University campus, by combining analytical ‘’pen and paper’’ calculations with results from large-scale numerical simulations on High-Performance Computing (HPC) facilities.

Professor Aarts commented: ‘’Swansea University has one of the largest Particle Theory groups in the UK and the leading HPC group for investigations of this kind. Together with my Swansea colleagues and collaborators in Germany, Ireland, Italy, Korea and elsewhere, we have been able to contribute to the theoretical understanding of the quark-gluon plasma and devise new numerical methods for underexplored questions.’’

Professor Aarts work is primarily driven by the quest for a fundamental understanding of how Nature works at the smallest scales. He added:  ‘’Although the HPC aspects of my work provide an excellent training ground for PhD students, it is gratifying that this mostly blue skies research has been rewarded with the Wolfson Award, without the need for the presence of interdisciplinary work or the requirement of immediate impact.’’

Gert Aarts Award pic

In the past years, Professor Aarts has co-organised a number of international meetings to bring together scientists in the field, at ECT* (Trento, Italy, 2009), the Institute for Nuclear Theory (Seattle, USA, 2012) and most recently at Swansea University. By serendipitous timing the Strong and Electroweak Matter (SEWM2012) Conference, attended by 130 participants from Japan to Brazil, took place exactly one week after the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN and Professor Peter Higgs gave the keynote lecture at the meeting.


Next year he will organise an international Workshop at GSI (Darmstadt, Germany, 2014).  Professor Aarts said: ‘’Communication and the exchange of ideas are essential for scientific progress. The possibility to organise a meeting which brings together world-leading experts is always exciting, since it may lead to the new idea we have all been waiting for.’’

During the next five years, Professor Aarts hopes to make progress particularly on the description of strongly interacting matter in cases where the number of quarks exceeds the number of anti-quarks, a problem which has baffled physicists ever since the theory of the strong interaction was formulated.

Picture: left to right .  Professor Aarts (Swansea University), Professor Peter Higgs (Edinburgh University) and Professor Simon Hands (Swansea University) during the Strong and Electroweak Conference in Swansea, July 2012.

  • The Wolfson Foundation is a grant-making charity established in 1955. Funding is given to support excellence. For more information  go to www.wolfson.org.uk . Since 2000, the Wolfson Foundation has committed £20 million to funding the Wolfson Merit Awards. The programme is jointly funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and is administered by the Royal Society. Funding allows universities to increase academic salaries to internationally competitive levels. The intention is to enable British universities to retain in the UK and attract from abroad, scientists of outstanding achievement and potential. By 2010 over 200 researchers had received this prestigious award. Full details of the programme, including how to apply, are available from the Royal Society.

  • The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.  For further information please visit http://royalsociety.org. or contact the Royal Society Press and Public Relations office on 020 7451 2514.