Oxford University Professor wins Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal

13 January 2023

Today, Professor Timothy Palmer from Oxford University’s Department of Physics, has received the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal. The award – the society’s highest honour – recognises Professor Palmer’s outstanding contributions to the field of climate and weather prediction.

‘I am delighted to receive this award. Throughout my career, I have always been very motivated to do something of practical importance for society, but in a way that used the sophisticated theoretical and mathematical techniques I had been trained in. It is wonderful to have this formally acknowledged’ Professor Palmer said.

Arguably his most influential contribution to climate science is the development of ensemble forecasting, something that only became possible with the advent of powerful computers. This was the first method of forecasting to take into account the inherent uncertainty within weather systems. The approach uses the power of computers to run weather simulations multiple times, using slightly different starting conditions and equations. Comparing the outcomes of these different simulations indicates how likely different weather events will be.

Not only did this revolutionise the field of weather forecasting, but ensemble forecasting has led to the development of a wide range of operational products, including tools that allow disaster relief agencies to take anticipatory action ahead of extreme weather events. More recently, Professor Palmer has researched how ensemble forecasting can be applied to predict uncertainty in many other fields, including COVID-19, economic and conflict prediction. His popular science book The Primacy of Doubt, published in 2022, introduced these ideas to a wider audience, by explaining how the geometry of chaos can help us to make sense of uncertainty in a rapidly changing world.

The award also reflects Professor Palmer’s contributions to science and society, which includes his position as President of the Royal Meteorological Society between 2011-2012. He was involved in the first five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports, and served on various government committees to examine issues from climate adaptation to the role of science in helping mitigate the humanitarian impact of natural disasters.

To date, Professor Palmer has published over 260 research papers in international peer-reviewed journals (including 13 articles in Nature), which have attracted over 25,000 citations. For these contributions to science and society, Professor Timothy N. Palmer is awarded the RAS Gold Medal.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of Department at the Department of Physics, commented: ‘Tim’s work in weather and climate prediction has revolutionised the field – work that is ever more essential as we collectively strive to understand and thus tackle the challenges of climate change. Congratulations to a wonderful colleague on this richly deserved honour.’

The Gold Medal is the Royal Astronomical Society’s highest honour and can be awarded for any reason, but usually recognises outstanding lifetime achievement. It was first awarded in 1824, with previous winners including Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Arthur Eddington, and Stephen Hawking. Since 1964, two Gold Medals have been awarded each year: one for astronomy, and one for geophysics.

Notes to editors:

For interview and photograph requests, please contact Dr Caroline Wood, University of Oxford: caroline.wood@admin.ox.ac.uk

The full list of Royal Astronomy Society winners can be found on the society’s website after the embargo lifts: https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/news/royal-astronomical-society-unveils-2023-award-winners

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