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2021 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Dr Keith Bannister

Dr Keith Bannister, Principal Research Engineer in Space and Astronomy at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, is recognised for his pioneering research into fast radio bursts which are short, sharp pulses of radio waves that last a few milliseconds and are extremely hard to detect. This work is now solving several of the big astronomical mysteries of our generation.

In 2017, Dr Bannister modified CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope in Western Australia with a new ‘fly’s eye’ mode to search large areas of sky simultaneously for FRBs. As a result, the number of known FRBs increased by 20 bursts by 2018. In 2019, he then designed a world-first system for ASKAP to pinpoint the precise location that a burst came from within a galaxy, and its distance from Earth.

His discoveries have captured the public’s imagination, generating national pride in Australian science and technology, placing the country at the centre of an important new field of astrophysics research. 

Watch a video about their work

We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory site, where ASKAP is located.

[Music plays and the image shows a slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Malcolm McIntosh Prize Physical Scientist of the Year medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, and the name, Dr Keith Bannister]

[Image changes to show Dr Keith Bannister walking towards the camera, entering a building, and then talking to the camera]

Dr Keith Bannister: My name is Keith Bannister. I'm an astronomer and engineer at the CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. My job is to build telescopes and use them to find out things about the universe that we didn't know before.

[Image changes to show a rear view of Keith working at a computer, and then the image changes to show data on a computer screen, and then the image changes to show Keith talking to the camera]

So in the last few years I've been working on a phenomenon called Fast Radio Bursts. Fast Radio Bursts are bursts of radio waves. They last about a millisecond; click your finger and they've gone.

[Image changes to show digital footage of a Fast Radio Burst, and then the image changes to show five different coloured streaks moving across a night sky screen]

When they were first discovered by astronomers in 2007, we had absolutely no idea what they were and that's exactly the sort of mystery that I just really wanted to be involved in.

[Images move through of a close view of a telescope, an aerial view of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder site, a close view of a telescope, and then Keith talking to the camera]

The telescope I used the most is called the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, built by the CSIRO in Western Australia. This telescope produces a huge amount of data and we have to sift through all of it just to find one burst.

[Image changes to show Fast Radio Bursts hitting the telescope, and then the image changes to show an aerial view of lines of data moving from a telescope to a building]

When Fast Radio Bursts were first discovered, we really didn't know which galaxies they came from.

[Image changes to show a digital view of the Fast Radio Bursts travelling down the the corridor in a supercomputer]

And so it was difficult to really understand what made them.
[Images move through to show a computer screen in the supercomputer, Keith talking to the camera, a Fast Radio Burst in the night sky, and a digital close view of the galaxy, and text appears: The outer regions of a massive galaxy]

What we did with our telescope was for the first time detect a single burst and zoom in exactly on the location of that burst inside a particular galaxy.

[Image shows the digital view changing into a graph showing the distance of the galaxy]

And that told us a huge amount of information that we just didn't have before.

[Images move through of Keith talking to the camera, a Fast Radio Burst in a galaxy, a side view of Keith looking at a computer screen, and a rear view of Keith working on a computer]

After we found that first burst, we actually went out and found a few more and we were able to use those bursts to measure the number of atoms in the universe. And that's a number that's very difficult to measure any other way.

[Images move through of a Fast Radio Burst in a night sky, and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescopes moving in unison]

Fast Radio Bursts are still a mystery, but they're helping us understand some of the biggest astronomical questions of our generation.

[Image changes to show an aerial view looking down on the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder site]

Astronomy is the gateway to science.

[Image changes to show a world globe in the night sky, and then the image changes to show a galaxy in the night sky, and then the image changes to show Keith talking to the camera]

There are some beautiful mysteries in the universe that remain to be uncovered. I really hope more young people in Australia will be inspired by this and pursue science as a career.

[Image changes to show a facing view of Keith talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show Keith climbing up a set of stairs inside a building]

To be recognized in the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science is a massive honour and very humbling.

[Image changes to show Keith’s shadow reflected in the glass of a framed photo of a radio telescope, and then the image changes to show a close view of a radio telescope and text appears: We acknowledge the Wajarri Yamatji people as the Traditional Owners of the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory site, where ASKAP is located]

I'm very passionate about what I do, and I hope that inspires people to support science.

[Images move through of an aerial view of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder site, the site with a changing background of night sky and day sky, and then Keith talking to the camera]

I honestly believe science can solve some of the biggest challenges that we have in the future. And I think we need to see what we're at capable of achieving.

[Image changes to show a new slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Malcolm McIntosh Prize Physical Scientist of the Year medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, and the name, Dr Keith Bannister]

See their acceptance speech

[Image shows a slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Malcolm McIntosh Prize Physical Scientist of the Year medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, and the name, Dr Keith Bannister]

[Music plays and the image changes to show Keith wearing a suit and tie and talking to the camera and a Prize medallion and text appears: Dr Keith Bannister]

Thank you Prime Minister, and Minister Price. It is a great honour to receive this award. It's been such a privilege to be part of astronomy when there's so many opportunities to make exciting discoveries. I've had a fantastic time and it's been a really wild ride. I truly believe that the STEM disciplines have the ability to, to solve so many of the problems that we face. Astronomy in particular, has the ability to inspire us, to help us understand our context in the universe. I really hope that my work and the Prizes in general will inspire a whole generation of young people to pursue a career in science. Astronomy is an international pursuit. It crosses boundaries between states and nations, and I'd like to thank all my collaborators from around Australia and the world for helping make these discoveries possible.

I'd really like to thank Ryan Shannon and the late Jean-Pierre Macquart for sharing their joy of discovery with me and for all their expertise and the fantastic leadership they've done. To my mentors, Bryan Gaensler, Tara Murphy, Tim Cornwell, Simon Johnston, Ron Ekers, and Elaine Sadler. I'd also like to thank the CSIRO, and all the fantastic engineers and astronomers who build the telescopes and look after them.

[Image continues to show Keith talking to the camera]

I'd like to thank my family. To my kids, Arianne, Soren, and Huon, I'm really sorry I woke you up that day when I ran screaming through the house when we found our first burst. I'd like to thank my wife, Michelle. You always inspired me to dream, and it's been fantastic that you do that. I'd like to thank my mum and dad, and my sister Corinne for always being there. Thank you.

[Screen goes to white]