Home CV Publications ROE ESO

I am the Director for Science at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), on secondment from the Institute for Astronomy (IfA), part of the University of Edinburgh, where I am Professor of Astrophysics. The IfA shares the beautiful Royal Observatory site on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh with the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC's) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), arguably the world's leading specialist in astronomical instrumentation. Together, the IfA and UK ATC have helped Scotland become a major force in astrophysics, worldwide. I was previously a PPARC Advanced Fellow (Ernest Rutherford Fellowships nowadays) at the IfA and a lecturer at University College London.

I hold an Advanced Grant, COSMICISM (related publications; philosophical aside), from the European Research Council, which aims to study the formation and evolution of galaxies, mainly via observations at far-infrared, submillimetre and radio wavelengths. I currently lead science projects with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA) near Socorro in New Mexico, the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique's Plateau de Bure Interferometer (PdBI) near Grenoble in France and the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope (GMRT), near Pune in India.

I also co-lead a European Space Agency proposal to construct and launch FIRI, a far-infrared telescope mission, designed to yield considerably better spatial resolution than has hitherto been possible.

My time is split between supervising PhD students, writing proposals to use or build telescopes, analysing data, and writing papers - 36 and 44 refereed papers as first and second author, respectively (all refereed, 1st author refereed; 2nd author refereed; one of nine Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers in space science in UK) - working in a field I perceive to represent the divine intersection of science and art. What I do is esoteric by most standards, but normal in astrophysics. I meddle mainly with faint smudges in far-flung regions of the Universe. The golden rule seems to be that I get interested in things that are ridiculously difficult to study and explain.


The submillimetre waveband gives access to redshifted far-infrared emission from very dusty, active galaxies in the distant Universe - UV photons from hot, young stars which have been absorbed by cool dust particles and re-emitted at much longer wavelengths.

The first sensitive submillimetre surveys of the distant Universe were completed in 1997. The first map, taken through the massive lensing cluster, Abell 370, is shown to the left. The map was made with the SCUBA bolometer array on the 15-m JCMT, Hawaii. The bright source at the bottom of the image (`Le Blob' to its friends, or L1/L2) was the first `SCUBA galaxy' - SMM J02399-0136 at z = 2.8.

We know now that these objects can be extremely complex, comprising at least 3 major components (L1, L1N, L2SW) in the case of SMM J02399-0136: if we look in detail (see the Hubble Space Telescope imaging on the right), we often find that the starburst (L2SW in this case, identified via high-resolution radio imaging) is faint (often invisible) in the UV/optical waveband, even in deep post-SM4 HST imaging, with the optical light dominated by a BAL quasar (labelled L1 here) which isn't responsible for much (if any) of the submillimetre emission. Reddened or reflected starlight sometimes leaks out on the periphery (L2 may be reflected light in this particular case).

The far-infrared luminosity of a galaxy can be used to infer the rate at which it is forming stars (as most of the UV radiation comes from massive stars which don't live very long). The many 1000s of stars formed each year in most of these galaxies - together with the immense quantities of molecular gas that we infer via millimetric observations of carbon monoxide (CO) - indicate that we are probably seeing the formation of massive galaxies. Our surveys in this waveband have demonstrated that roughly half the star formation in the entire history of the Universe has occurred in highly obscured environments, invisible to surveys in the UV/optical.

Investigating the detailed properties of this population is a very active field of study. My research in this field is done in collaboration with various combinations of Ian Smail, Andrew Blain, Dave Frayer, Mark Swinbank, Thomas Greve, Alasdair Thomson, Padelis Papadopoulos, Andy Biggs, Edo Ibar, Loretta Dunne, Steve Eales, Scott Chapman, Jim Dunlop, Jason Stevens, and a host of others.


I'm married to a divine Mackem lass, and we have two adorable/demonic children - one of each (ambiguity intended). I hail from Blackburn, Lancashire, which has a fine history of one-downsmanship (a concept lost on most academics). I'm a fan of Blackburn Rovers, for my sins, though I'm making an effort to get `clean' of football. I attend manic, daily RPM classes in my local tennis centre, and I also run (slowly, painfully), potter in my garden or allotment, watch movies and spend 72/73rds of the year looking forward to Glastonbury.

Last Modified: 16th January 2016.

Rob Ivison / rivison [at] / ESO, Karl Schwarzschild Strasse 2, D-85748 Garching, Munich, Germany
Tel: +49-89-3200-6669 / Cell: +49-151-1856-3662
rji [at] / Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ
Tel: +44-131-668-8361 / Fax: +44-131-668-8464