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History of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Group

Foundation of the Group

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Group was founded as an independent cluster within the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick by Professor Thomas R. Marsh. Having been invited to join Warwick on 1st April 2003, Prof. Marsh made several visits during the blazingly hot summer of that year and took up a full-time position at the start of September 2003. His first permanent academic staff appointment, Boris Gänsicke (then a PPARC Advanced Fellow) joined in November, having accompanied Marsh from their earlier appointments at the University of Southampton. Neither were familiar with Coventry or its historical connections with astronomy - instead the University of Warwick offered the challenge of a fresh start.

Both Marsh and Gänsicke have research interests which focus on the time domain behaviour of light from compact objects (such as white dwarfs) and their binary interactions. However the focus of the group rapidly became broader. Professor Marsh notes that: 'I was thinking in terms of a compact object binary group at the start, but never just that. An early piece of advice I had from a colleague was "hire good people", and that was good advice.'

Early Days

Establishing the new group was not without its challenges. Space and personnel were both extremely limited when the group was founded:

We had to handle everything with just two people. Teaching, grants, postgrad recruitment, open days, outreach, computing, offices... the first few years were very exhausting, but great fun. My favourite recollection is that the five of us (the initial cohort of PhD students Amornrat Aungwerojwit & Susana Barros, PDRA Pablo Rodriguez Gil, myself and Tom) were crammed into three offices. I shared the office with Pablo and when I had tutorials, it was "Pablo, time to have a coffee" - Prof. Gänsicke.

Establishing funding for the research effort came with its own challenges:

There is one from the early days I find hard to forget. It dates from a time when, in making large "rolling grant" bids to the funding council (STFC), one had to travel to STFC HQ in Swindon and make a presentation to the grants panel before being questioned. We only did so once, and it was all rather nerve wracking. As we nervously sat outside the room of judgement, the preceding applicants-come-supplicants emerged ... first out of the room was a certain Professor Stephen Hawking. All I could think was "gulp". - Prof. Marsh.

A Growing Group

Despite the early challenges, the Warwick Astronomy and Astrophysics group has grown rapidly. In 2010, the group was led by five academics and hosted the annual STFC summer school for incoming astronomy PhD students, and it continued to grow over the subsequent years, adding three further permanent staff members by 2016. A major expansion of the group followed that year, in response to a concerted effort to strengthen the rapidly-developing research area of exoplanets and exoplanetary disk systems. As of early 2022, the group comprises some 73 researchers, including 18 academic staff, in fields as varied as compact binaries, exoplanets, debris disks, theoretical simulations, stellar populations, gravitational wave and transient astronomy, space domain awareness and astrophysical instrumentation. Group members have responsibility for a range of astronomical instruments and has established a remote observatory site on the Atlantic island of La Palma.

Both founding academics, Prof. Marsh and Prof. Gänsicke, remain members of the group. As Prof. Gänsicke notes:

"Academically, we've been very successful, and have extremely talented people. Starting from zero, we have worked out way up both nationally and internationally. But that aside, I do believe that we are one of the nicest research group, where people enjoy working together and to help each other out."

Prof. Marsh concurs:

"I'm pleased because we have contributed lots of good science over the years, trained lots of PhD students and post-doctoral researchers and inspired undergraduate students as well. I'm surprised at how large the group has grown; the days of de facto staff meetings via shouting down the corridor are in the dim and distant past (a good thing!). I don't feel pride, because where the group is now is down to so many people's efforts, not just mine. Gratitude that it has worked so far probably best captures how I feel."

Recent Developments

While the establishment of Warwick Astronomy and Astrophysics forms part of the story of Coventry's astronomy history, it is not one that has ended. The group continues to grow both in size and in the scope of its activities. A Centre for Exoplanets and Habitability, hosted within the group, was founded in 2017, and in 2019 Warwick Academics were instrumental in the foundation of GNOSIS (the Global Network on Sustainability in Space). This led to the further foundation of a Centre for Space Domain Awareness, again hosted by the group, in 2021. In early 2022, the group moved out of its original offices in the Physical Sciences building of the University of Warwick to relocate to Milburn House, also on the central Warwick campus, and in July 2022, the Astronomy and Astrophysics group, together with colleagues in Warwick's Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics (CFSA) are hosting the UK's Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting.

As the research group has grown, so has the amount of astronomy teaching available to undergraduate Physics students. In October 2020, Warwick welcomed the first cohort of students to a new Physics with Astronomy undergraduate degree course, consolidating and adding to the specialist astronomical material in the existing Physics degree. In 2022, this has been complemented by the establishment of a teaching observatory on the campus.

The future evolution of the group remains to be seen. As its founder, Prof. Marsh notes:

"I think the group has grown in diversity over the last few years especially, and I hope that that continues. I hope it continues to evolve in response to addressing interesting astrophysics; some of that may reflect current themes, but judging by the last 19 years, much of it may not. But that's fine, as long as it pursues interesting, high-quality science."

Interview with Prof. Tom Marsh - Feb 2022 (private correspondence)

Interview with Prof. Boris Gänsicke - Feb 2022 (private correspondence)

Major Astronomy Events and Conferences hosted at the University of Warwick (2003-2023):