McGill 'Zombie Star' Researcher Wins Canada's Top Science Award

Feb 24, 2016

An astrophysicist at McGill University in Montreal has achieved some significant milestones.

At age 48, Victoria Kaspi is now tied for the youngest person to win the Gerhard Herzberg Award – Canada’s top prize from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. And she’s the first woman to do so.

Kaspi studies dead stars, also known as neutron stars or, with a nod to pop culture, zombie stars. These come into being when a massive star explodes into a supernova and collapses into a smaller, dense neutron star. 

The Herzberg prize comes with a $1 million research grant.

On the importance of studying neutron stars

"The stars that embody very extreme environments are impossible to study in terrestrial labs. So we can learn all about physics of matter in very unusual exotic circumstances in ways that we just couldn't here on Earth.

"First of all, the neutron stars themselves are collapsed objects. So, the closest cousin they have is a black hole. And in a black hole, that's a collapsed star where all the matter is concentrated in a point and gravity is so strong around it that nothing, not even light, can escape. Neutron stars have not quite collapsed to the point of oblivion in the same sense, and we can actually still observe them, even though they're hovering on that brink.

"So when I say very high densities, I mean super high. So that if you could go up to a neutron star with a teaspoon and pull up a just a little spoonful of neutron star material, it would weigh something like a billion tons."

On studying pulsars, a type of neutron star

"The typical pulsar spins roughly once every second. And the fastest ones rotate several hundred times per second. It's sort of hard to imagine those kinds of speeds in something that's as massive as a pulsar – we think these objects have as much as 40 to 50 or even higher percent times the mass of the sun, but rotating as fast as a kitchen blender."

"It comes back to the question of what, 'What is the nature of matter in these very high densities?' So one of the questions that we're trying to answer is, 'What's inside the neutron star?' How does matter behave at those densities? And one of the ways of answering that is by finding ever faster pulsars. Because ... at some point, the star should break apart. And by finding pulsars that clearly exist and have not broken apart, and measuring their spin rate, we know ... matter under those conditions can still hold itself together."

On the recent confirmation of gravitational waves created by colliding black holes in space

"I have to say, it was utter joy. It was so wonderful, because I know so many of the people involved in that wonderful project, and I know how hard they have been working for so many years ... But even, I really had a deeper feeling, because it's just so wonderful to know that physics actually works. That the universe itself works the way that we had hoped. And so I was absolutely thrilled by the report."

On plans for spending the $1 million research grant

"Most of it, I already have a plan for it. Canada is building a new radio telescope. It's going to be called the CHIME [Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment] Radio Telescope – a telescope that has no moving parts. It will be particularly good for studying a new problem in astrophysics called 'fast radio bursts.' This is a phenomenon that was discovered just under a decade ago in which we've been observing short bursts of radio waves, all over the sky, hundreds to thousands of times per day, we believe, but we have no idea what the origin is. It's a cosmic mystery. And the CHIME telescope is going to be really good for studying this problem."

On being a woman in the sciences

"Certainly, there have been occasions when gender has been an issue. I can't say, though, that I personally have suffered any major issues because of it. And probably to some degree there's what we call in physics a selection bias, in that you're talking to someone who's had a pretty good career. And people who have suffered from greater gender bias might have dropped out of the field a long time ago. And so, I consider myself quite lucky, but nevertheless am intensely aware of the difficulties that some of my female colleagues have been describing – sometimes anecdotally, but also very well documented in recent press reports."

On being an inspiration to aspiring female physicists

"I think there's very strong cultural, societal biases against women going into physics. I see it in newspapers and movies – very subtle. Like, it's very hard sometimes to put your finger on it without sounding petty ... You don't always notice it, because it's a little bit ingrained ... Little things all add up. So I hope in some small way this award counteracts a little bit of that, but I think there's a lot more work to be done."