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Three of this year’s six Royal Society Research Professorships have been awarded to scientists in MPLS Division. These are the Royal Society’s premier research awards, and provide long-term support for internationally recognised scientists of exceptional accomplishments from a range of diverse fields.

The MPLS awardees are Professor Georg Gottlob in the Department of Computer Science, Professor J.C. Séamus Davis in the Department of Physics, and Professor Jonathan Blundy, who moves to the Department of Earth Sciences in July 2020 to take up his Research Professorship.

The Research Professorships help release researchers from competing duties, such as teaching and administration, allowing them to focus on ambitious and original research of the highest quality. The awards also enable distinguished, international research talent to relocate to a UK academic institution.

Professor Sam Howison, Head of MPLS Division, said: "This is wonderful news and I am absolutely delighted for the recipients. These positions sit at the pinnacle of UK science and their award is a testament to the extraordinary quality of Oxford's science across the board. We all look forward to seeing the fruits of their research as it develops."

Professor Gottlob said: "I am very excited to be awarded this Research Professorship. It will allow me to continue my research on efficient rule-based reasoning and study how this method can be combined with machine learning. The Royal Society Professorship allows me to fully concentrate on this research, and to start building a new team. There is no better place for this project than the Department of Computer Science at Oxford. The Department  is already a top research hub for both machine learning and rule-based knowledge representation and reasoning. The time has now come to study how these two approaches can be combined fruitfully. I hope we will make significant progress over the years ahead."

Professor Davis commented: "For me, this is a delightfully timely confluence of scientific opportunities. We have developed two new modalities for visualising fundamental states of quantum matter just as the superlative facilities ideally suited to such research come online. Atomic scale visualisation of quantum spin liquids requires world class ultra-low-vibration and ultra-low-temperature (ULVT) lab facilities – and the next-generation ULVT labs some 30m underground in the new Beecroft building at Oxford University perform these functions superbly."

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said: “We are delighted with the six appointments made in this year’s Royal Society Research Professorship competition. The newly appointed Research Professors join a world-class cohort of leading scientists that have and continue to make exceptional contributions to science. This type of investment in world-leading talent is crucial to the continued success of UK science.” 

The other three Research Professorships were awarded to:

Professor Richard Thomas FRSTopics in algebraic geometry, Imperial College London. Professor Thomas has an Oxford connection, having completed his DPhil in the Mathematical Institute under the supervision of Prof Simon Donaldson, now at Imperial.

Professor Henning Sirringhaus FRSNanoscale characterisation of charge and heat transport across interfaces in novel, molecular thermoelectric materials, University of Cambridge

Professor Jennifer Thomas CBE FRSPeering at neutrino oscillations with a magnifier, University College London

Details of the three MPLS researchers’ projects

Professor Jonathan Blundy FRS, From Volcanism to Green Mining - Rethinking Igneous Geochemical Cycles

Jonathan Blundy FRS is currently Professor of Petrology at the University of Bristol and will move to Oxford in July 2020. His work combines methods drawn from field geology to thermodynamics to investigate how volcanoes work, including the mechanics of magmatic systems and the formation of ore deposits.

Understanding how magmatism influences the formation of the earth’s mineral-rich crust is vital for accessing the metal ores that drive the 21st century, from electronics to energy. But a long-held scientific paradigm, which argues that the chemical differentiation of magma occurs in large magma chambers in the shallow crust, is under scrutiny. Professor Blundy will use experimental petrology, geological observations and modelling to test an alternative framework, which does not rely on chambers; he proposes instead that differentiation occurs within a crystal-rich ‘mush’ straddling almost the entire Earth’s crust. Professor Blundy’s rethinking of magmatic systems could change how we explore for and extract economically important metals in the future.

Professor J.C. Séamus Davis, Atomic-scale Visualization of Quantum Spin Liquids

J.C. Séamus Davis is Professor of Physics at Oxford University and Professor of Quantum Physics at University College Cork, who studies exotic new quantum mechanical states of matter. He is a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.

His Professorship aims to advance our understanding of the most enigmatic and challenging of these states, “quantum spin liquids”, by developing two new types of quantum microscopes - the first instruments capable of atomic-scale visualisations that are designed to observe quantum spin liquids directly. Spin liquids are materials in which every electron is quantum “entangled”, instantaneously influencing all the others by what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance". They rival dark matter in their power to stubbornly resist direct observation but understanding their properties will be vital for advancing the development of quantum computing and quantum materials.

Professor Georg Gottlob FRS, RAISON DATA – Rule-based AI Systems for Reasoning on Massive Data

Georg Gottlob FRS is a Professor of Informatics in the Department of Computer Science and a Fellow of St. John's College. He is working to build better, and more trustworthy, artificial intelligence (AI) by combining existing machine learning approaches with the use of transferable knowledge that humans deploy.

While machine learning has advanced rapidly thanks to neural networks, the trial and error approach it uses is similar to the way human babies learn to walk or recognise their parents. But trial and error learning can be time consuming and risky, for example, in the case of identifying what foods are poisonous. It is sometimes also impossible, due to the lack of data.  However, humans developed language and other systems which make it possible to pass on knowledge directly to others who integrate that into their own knowledge. Gottlob’s professorship will look at the rules which enable knowledge transfer to work best in AI and integrate them with existing machine learning approaches. He will then build software that aims to apply this reasoning-based learning in useful, real-life situations.

The next round of the Royal Society Research Professorship scheme is open to applications until Thursday 4 June 2020.

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