From childhood fear of the dark to the very first woman to head the Canadian Institute of Astrophysics

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From childhood fear of the dark to the very first woman to head the Canadian Institute of Astrophysics


Academic describes hiring of Juna Kollmeier by Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics as exceptional ‘brain gain’ for Canada.

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The University of Toronto has named Juna Kollmeier, an American star astrophysicist who studies the emergence of structure in the universe, as the very first female director of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics.

In an interview in California, where she currently directs the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Kollmeier describes herself as an “observant theorist”.

“This means that I am a theorist who is interested, in real time, in comparing theories to observations, refining those theories and coming up with new ones as needed by the data,” she said.

The arcane mathematics of physics describes many ways the universe could be, but this is a separate project to understand what it really is and why.

“It’s this interface that is the target,” Kollmeier said. “Now it’s just an amazing time to be at this intersection because we have both incredible richness in our mathematical approaches and incredible richness in datasets.”

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There are different ways of looking at the sky, such as spectroscopy to see how the color of light has changed as it travels, or the gravitational lens to see how mass has curved the path of light.

There are “synergies” between these techniques, with greater potential than any technique alone, Kollmeier said. Comparing these different datasets in a theoretical framework might reveal answers about, for example, how black holes are formed, or how dark matter clumps together, or how a “smooth” phenomenon like the Big Bang leads to over time to the various structures of the universe. , which today is dotted with galaxies in a vast intergalactic medium, which has so far been at the center of his research.

“These questions will have nowhere to hide,” she said.

Based at the University of Toronto, the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics was founded in 1984 as a federally funded research institute carrying out scientific activities on fundamental questions in cosmology.

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Kollmeier said observing the cosmos is different from other frontier sciences such as subatomic particle physics. To do this, scientists can build elaborate machines like the Large Hadron Collider and find a huge wealth of data available in what they can access right in front of them. If they want to see what happens when the energy goes up a notch, the answer is there in the machine.

But in astronomy, said Kollmeier, if you want to go to the highest energy frontier, you have to go to the sky.

“The data is there to be viewed,” she said. The challenge is figuring out which dataset is actually going to break the Big Insight.

“There’s a lot of art in designing cosmic experiences, because you can’t control anything,” she says. “Our laboratory is very large, it is difficult to control the temperature.”

Kollmeier is also the head of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project to build a map of the cosmos based on how much light reaching Earth is red-shifted by the expansion of the universe. Just as the sound of a police car siren drops in pitch as it passes, light waves from a receding source see their wavelength increased towards the red end of the spectrum. This is one of the main reasons astronomers know the universe is expanding.

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She describes this as a useful way to constrain theoretical models with real observations. “There is a deep connection between our theoretical world and the world of experimental astrophysics, because nature is extremely creative,” she said. “It’s a rich region. As for where we’re going, the sky is the limit, literally.

Kollmeier said she also hoped the post would be an opportunity to inspire young people, for whom basic astronomy is sometimes “a bridge science.”

“It might seem so intimidating knowing how far away the Moon or the Sun is, but it’s not as intimidating as it looks,” she said. “It’s powerful and inspiring to be able to do this, I want to break down these barriers for anyone who is also interested in this quest.”

She traces her own scientific curiosity back to a childhood fear of the dark and her mental efforts to quell it, which over time has taught her that fears can be tamed through investigation, be it in astronomy or other basic human concerns like disease.

“The opposite of fear is knowledge and understanding,” she says.

Melanie Woodin, dean of arts and science and University of Toronto, said the hiring was an exceptional “brain gain” for Canada. ”

Norman Murray, who is stepping down as director at CITA, said Kollmeier is “an incredible scientist, mentor and collaborator. I am delighted that she is helping advance our mission of expanding Canada’s capacity in theoretical astrophysics and developing our national and international networks, as our postdoctoral fellows continue to teach and innovate at many other leading universities. .

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