CITA's Norman Murray named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

November 24, 2020 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

Norman Murray, director of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Murray is receiving the prestigious distinction “for theoretical work providing key insights into a broad range of astrophysical topics encompassing planetary science, star formation, galaxy evolution and active galactic nuclei.”

“My first reaction is one of gratitude,” he says. “I've been incredibly lucky to have been helped along my path by so many people and to have had such great support to do what I love.

“This kind of recognition would never have happened without that support and the honour reflects not just my own efforts but the work of those who supported me. Plus, it’s just cool!"

“The breadth of the work for which Professor Murray is receiving this honour is remarkable,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty. “Conducting research into planets, stars and galaxies is like studying the human body, its genetics, as well as its atoms and molecules.

“In addition to his research, Professor Murray has made an equally remarkable contribution to the Faculty as a long-time member and director of CITA through which U of T is a partner in groundbreaking work around the world. It’s a well-deserved honour.”

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 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 studies 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.”

Murray is among the latest cohort of a tradition of AAAS Fellows begun in 1874 that is given in recognition of scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

This year’s AAAS Fellows will be formally announced in Science on November 27 and a virtual Fellows Forum induction ceremony will be held February 13, 2021.