People may be talking more about astronomical discoveries now that legendary astronomy show Cosmos is back on the air. Chances are, some of that knowledge came from Toronto.
Within the unassuming confines of a series of offices at the University of Toronto’s McLellan Physics Laboratory, there are black holes entwined in a cosmic dance, shimmering microwaves from a newly born galaxy, and the dusty particles of the interstellar medium—in theory, of course. The top floors of the building are home to the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, a world-renowned hub researching the cosmic guts that make up the universe.
Searching for space-time ripples
The office has been buzzing lately: Two weeks ago, astrophysics superstar and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson dropped in for a quick reception before delivering his sold-out lecture at Convocation Hall the same evening. And the week prior, a team of astronomers at the South Pole announced they had detected ripples of space-time—gravitational waves that will hopefully validate the theory of how the universe expanded after the Big Bang. “That was one of the holy grails that we’ve all been after,” says Peter Martin, co-founder of CITA, where astrophysicists have been developing technology to quickly identify colliding black holes, which will further help track these elusive space-time echoes.
Big questions, little answers
When CITA was founded in 1984, there was no internet crowdsourcing, nor were there high-tech satellites like those used to peer further into the depths of space. Testing out theories and building off other astrophysicists’ research were processes that moved at a glacial pace. Though computer modelling has opened up infinite possibilities, most days at CITA still involve working through theories ad nauseam hoping to advance them in incremental amounts. On one floor, early-universe cosmology researcher Joel Meyers pores over papers about the recent Big Bang announcement, seeing where his research fits in. A floor above, kitty-corner to Martin’s office, Aaron Zimmerman studies black holes and what happens when things fall into them. Ultimately, his pen-and-paper research will be used with other CITA members’ theories to develop complex computations and surreal visualizations (like those colourful graphics featured on CITA’s website) that test out the hypotheses.
Orbiting the cookie table
While many at CITA are after the same thing—figuring out the fundamental rules that govern our universe and our place in cosmic history—the specialist nature of each member’s research can make it hard to really connect with one another. Even so, there are weekly seminars and they congregate every Friday to chat about their work over dessert. But the members all agree that theoretical astrophysics can be mind-bending at times. “Every once in awhile I like to step back and take stock of where we’ve come and what we can really say about the universe, and it is pretty astonishing,” says Meyers.
THINGS CITA HAS HELPED US SEE (AND UNDERSTAND)
The Big Bang: By analyzing its background radiation.
Magnetars: Super-dense neutron stars the size of Toronto with the strongest magnetic fields of the known universe.
The Interstellar Medium: In particular, the role it plays in the life cycles of stars.
Pulsars: Seeing these rapidly spinning neutron stars at unprecedented resolution via image-gathering systems.