Making waves in interdisciplinary research

Cosmology & Gravity Commentary 08.03.2016

Alan BernsteinOne hundred years ago, Albert Einstein predicted that gravity could propagate in the form of gravitational waves, bending the fabric of space-time as they passed. Last month an international team of researchers announced that they had discovered the first direct evidence of these waves as they passed through the Earth after a collision between two black holes 1.3 billion years from here.

Fellows in our Cosmology & Gravity program have had a special interest in gravitational waves for years. CIFAR Fellow Harald Pfeiffer, in collaboration with other fellows, has done important work on simulating black hole collisions on supercomputers. That work led to predictions of what a gravitational wave signature should look like. It paid off – Pfeiffer is among the co-authors on the new paper, and his work helped researchers recognize the gravitational wave when they saw it. Pfeiffer credits his CIFAR collaborators who came at the problem from a number of different perspectives with helping with his work.

The discovery is an example of the new reality of scientific research – it is increasingly international and multidisciplinary. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration that discovered the gravitational waves included 1000 of the best scientists from 90 universities and research institutes in 15 countries. And it’s not just big physics – all areas of research are becoming more international, and more multi-disciplinary by the year.

This is where CIFAR’s strength is, and has been for the past 30 years. We specialize in bringing together preeminent researchers from across disciplines and around the world, and creating the conditions that will result in successful collaborations. As science becomes more international and interdisciplinary, CIFAR’s experience in putting these ingredients together and having them lead to transformative knowledge will be more important than ever.

In another example of CIFAR enabling ground-breaking research, you can read about recent work by Louis Taillefer, director of CIFAR Quantum Materials program, in untangling the puzzle of how superconductivity works, and how we can put it to use. That work also crosses disciplines and international borders, bringing together researchers from France, Sherbrooke, and British Columbia, including Cyril Proust (Laboratoire National des Champs Magnétiques Intenses), Doug Bonn, Walter Hardy and Ruixing Liang (all three University of British Columbia).

Of course it starts with the excellence of our researchers, and I’m happy to report another piece of news. Victoria Kaspi, CIFAR’s R. Howard Webster Foundation Fellow, received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering for her work on neutron stars.

As a feature elsewhere in this newsletter details, Kaspi’s study of neutron stars – the remnants of enormous stars which have exploded and then collapsed – has increased our understanding of how stars live and die, as well as our understanding of how matter behaves in the extreme conditions of space.

Kaspi is the sixth CIFAR researcher to win the Herzberg medal in recent years. She joins Distinguished Fellow Geoffrey Hinton, Senior Fellow Gilles Brassard, Nobel laureate John C. Polanyi and Program Director J. Richard Bond.

At CIFAR we know our researchers are among the best in the world, and it’s gratifying that our fellows continue to receive some of the world ‘s highest recognition for their contributions to science.


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