CITA's Norman Murray adds Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada to a growing list of honours

September 7, 2021 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

Norman Murray, a renowned astrophysical theorist who has spent his career studying the dynamics of such diverse phenomenon as planetary systems and galaxies, has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Murray is a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) and a former CITA director.

According to the society, the distinction recognizes his “powerful physical insight, creativity and technical skill expressed over an amazingly broad spectrum of astronomical problems.”

The society cites his fundamental contributions to theories of planet formation and evolution, chaos in the solar system, helioseismology, the physics of black hole accretion, and the effects of stars and supermassive black holes on galaxy formation.

“I'm grateful to receive this recognition for my work,” says Murray. “Of course, it also reflects all the support I've gotten over my career — from my teachers, mentors and colleagues.

“The environment at CITA, the Faculty of Arts & Science and the University of Toronto has been and continues to be conducive to doing world-class research with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, something I have been able to take full advantage of. I look forward to doing more in the future!”

“It is wonderful to see Norm join the membership of the Royal Society of Canada,” says CITA director Juna Kollmeier.

“His lifetime of work ranging from the formation and detection of planets to the formation of galaxies has been marked throughout with vanguard creativity and critical insight. It is this combination that allows him to navigate through the fog of our limited understanding and make key discoveries in astronomy — while training and inspiring the next generation of cosmic explorers. Norm's work is very much in the CITA style and we are delighted to see that work recognized.”

Murray is one of three Faculty of Arts & Science scholars recognized by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in 2021. Alexie Tcheuyap has been named a fellow. Tcheuyap is a professor in the Department of French; served as vice-dean, faculty, academic life & equity; and is now associate vice-president and vice-provost, international student experience. And Wendy H. Wong, a professor in the Department of Political Science, has been named to the society’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

“This year, the Royal Society of Canada recognizes three scholars whose work reflects the depth and diversity of the Faculty of Arts & Science,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the faculty.

“While studying such far-ranging disciplines as astrophysical dynamics; African literary, cinema and media studies; and global affairs, they share the same insightfulness, passion and curiosity. We are very excited and proud that they have received these well-deserved honours.”

Murray adds the RSC honour to another recent distinction. In November 2020, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Murray received his bachelor of science from the California Institute of Technology and his PhD from the University of California Berkeley. He joined U of T in 1993, served as CITA director from 2006 to 2016 and began a second term in that role in July 2020.

He is a Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He is a recipient of the 1999 Newcomb Cleveland Award from the AAAS for the best 1999 paper in the journal Science, as well as a 2000 Province of Ontario Premier’s Research Excellence Award.

Murray studies the formation of planets from pre-planetary bodies known as proto-planets and the capture or ejection of small bodies like proto-planets and asteroids from the solar system. He describes his research as the search for answers to questions such as: Why are the planets spaced as they are? Why are there so many asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and so few elsewhere? What are the possible configurations of a planetary system?

At the other end of the cosmic scale, Murray investigates the active, radiation-emitting cores of galaxies. Referred to as quasars, these galactic beacons are the size of our solar system. They are the brightest objects in the universe — emitting as much light as a thousand suns — and are likely powered by matter falling into a massive black hole.

Murray’s research includes the spectra of the light coming from quasars to understand the source of bright features in the spectra called emission lines; the distribution of the material feeding the black hole; and the loss of angular momentum in this material which leads to its disappearance into the core of the quasar.

“I was fortunate to have been born curious,” says Murray. “And to have that curiosity encouraged by many people around me: my parents, teachers — my grade three teacher bought a telescope for me to use! There were professors and more recently students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.

“Astronomers discover lots of objects like black holes, neutron stars, planets, stars and systems like galaxies, quasars and x-ray sources that are well characterized but often poorly understood.

“That excites my curiosity,” he says. “I'm a physicist by training, so my curiosity drives me to create physically based models that I and my coworkers — often students — then use to predict or understand the observed sources — eventually! The first few tries usually don't work. Sometimes, after lots of false starts, we identify the right physics and thereby gain some insight. That's a great feeling.”