John Hawley, associate dean for science in the College of Arts & Sciences, is co-winner, with former U.Va. Astronomer Steven Balbus, of the 2013 Shaw Prize in Astronomy. (Photo: Cole Geddy)
Astronomer John Hawley
(By Cole Geddy)

University of Virginia astronomer John Hawley, and Steven Balbus, a former U-Va. colleague  who is now at the University of Oxford, are co-winners of the Shaw Prize, which is commonly known as the “Nobels of the East.”

Hawley and Balbus will share the $1 million award that comes with the Shaw Prize for Astronomy, which they won for their seminal discover in the 1980s of magnetorotational instability.

That, according to UVA Today, is a process that

      accounts for the process of accretion, a widespread phenomenon in astrophysics. It plays a key role in star formation, mass transfer between binary stars, and black hole X-ray binaries, and contributes to the growth of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. Astrophysical systems powered by accretion are some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, including quasars, active galactic nuclei and gamma ray bursts.


Matter that falls toward a compact star or black hole has too much angular momentum (“spin”) to fall directly in, and instead settles into a disk orbiting the central body.   Subsequent infall, or accretion, requires a mechanism, such as turbulence, to transfer angular momentum outward through the disk. Prior to the discovery, astronomers were certain that gases orbiting black holes were turbulent, but could not say why, as all hydrodynamic analysis showed the orbits to be stable. Balbus and Hawley’s discovery was that magnetic fields make the crucial difference; magnetorotational instability makes the orbits unstable…


(To view a computer simulation of a black hole accretion disk, click here.)



The Shaw Prizes were started in 2002 by Hong Kong film producer and philanthropist Run Run Shaw. They are given in astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences to people who are “furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilization.”

Hawley is associate Dean for the Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, a professor and former chair of the Astronomy Department. According to UVA Today, Hawley learned he had won while he was looking through his e-mail and saw a message he thought was a joke.

 I showed the message to my wife and she said, ‘It must be a scam.’ I started looking for the Nigerian return address and a request for my bank account number.

But that e-mail was actually a message of congratulations from Reinhard Genzel, the 2008 Shaw Prize winner who is an astronomer at the Max Plank Institutes. The official notice came later, in another e-mail.