CITA's Norman Murray receives the 2022 Dannie Heineman Prize for his 'deep theoretical insight'

February 2, 2022 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

Theoretical astrophysicist Norman Murray has been awarded the distinguished Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS). 

“It’s both thrilling and humbling,” says Murray, former director of U of T’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA). “I look at the names of people who’ve received the Heineman in the past and it's an impressive list.  

“There are at least six Nobel laureates, including Joe Taylor, Riccardo Giaconni and Jim Peebles, who is Canadian. The field of astronomy has exploded, experiencing great growth over the last half century. Many of the Heineman Prize winners were instrumental in that growth. As a young physicist, I knew of their work, but never thought I’d be associated with them in this way.” 

The Heineman committee selected Murray “for his deep theoretical insight into an exceptionally broad range of astrophysical phenomena, including the dynamics of planetary systems, accretion disk winds in active galactic nuclei, and star formation and feedback in galaxies.”  

“We are thrilled to see this year's Heineman Prize go to Norm,” says Juna Kollmeier, current director of CITA. “In an age of hyperspecialization, it's particularly important that the AAS and AIP prize selection committee has chosen to shine a light on broad and creative theorists like Norm whose range of contributions spans from detecting planets to understanding how galaxies form.” 

The annual prize is funded by the Heineman Foundation and was established in 1979 to recognize outstanding mid-career work in the field of astrophysics. Former U of T winners include Richard Bond (CITA) and Scott Tremaine (CITA). 

As the recipient of the prize, Murray will receive $10,000, a certificate at a future meeting of the AAS and the opportunity to give a talk at the gathering.  

Murray holds a Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics and adds the Heineman Prize to other recent honours. Among them, he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2021 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2020. 

He spoke to A&S News about his career and CITA. 

Once you’d decided you were going to study astronomy, were there any significant turning points in your career? 

I didn’t make the decision to study astronomy until my second postdoctoral position. I started out in physics, got my degree at Berkeley and then went to Queen Mary College of London to pursue nonlinear dynamics. Back then, in the mid-80s, nonlinear dynamics was fast becoming a branch of mathematics. I had no interest in doing that. So, I wrote to two people: a physicist working in fusion dynamics and Peter Goldreich, an astronomer at Caltech. Both offered me a position, but I decided to work with Peter. 

Working with Peter changed the course of my career. Astronomy is chock full of puzzles, having to do with objects and systems that are incredibly fascinating. From the get-go, I found myself asking, “How does this stuff work?” Also, Peter taught me how to think. That changed how I approach not only physics and astronomy, but the world. And as Peter told it, he learned how to think from his graduate advisor, Thomas Gold, the famous astrophysicist.  

CITA is a nationally supported research institute that began in 1984. Since its creation, what role has CITA played in Canadian astronomy? 

The story of CITA is truly remarkable. Very few people were doing theoretical astrophysics in Canada prior to its creation. But once up and running, CITA drew people like Dick Bond and Scott Tremaine, who have been followed by a steady stream of others. 

CITA is driven by the energy of its postdocs. They are a fun, dynamic group, up for anything in their research and, I might add, tenacious in their pursuit of science. Today, some 20 former CITA postdocs are faculty in universities across the country.  

Clearly, CITA has had an enormous impact on Canadian astronomy. But the same can be said of the institute’s impact on theoretical astrophysics in general. CITA researchers participate in international collaborations and experiments. Such involvement pulls Canada into all kinds of projects world-wide. What immediately comes to mind is the research into the Cosmic Microwave Background. A new director recently took up the reins at CITA, and she is a dynamo, intent on continuing CITA’s profound influence on theoretical astrophysics. She brings impressive enthusiasm and vision to the task, and as director of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey - V, continues our involvement in large surveys. It’s going to be an exciting decade.