Talking interstellar explosions, gender equity and hockey with the Dunlap Institute's new director

In January 2015, Bryan Gaensler began his tenure as director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. Gaensler is a leading international researcher in cosmic magnetism, supernova explosions and interstellar gas. He was the founding director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and an Australian Laureate Fellow at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney; he has also held positions at MIT, the Smithsonian and Harvard. In 1999, he was named Young Australian of the Year.

Chris Sasaki spoke to Gaensler about his research, the state of astronomy in Canada and his exciting plans for the Dunlap Institute.

One of your research interests is cosmic magnetism. What the heck is it and what interests you about it?

Planets, stars, nebulae, even entire galaxies—almost everything in the Universe—is magnetic. This magnetism plays a fundamental role in determining how stars and galaxies form, evolve and interact, but we don’t know what it looks like, where it came from, or how it has managed to stay so strong over billions and billions of years.

Many people will have memories of studying magnets in high school, where you put a sheet of paper over a bar magnet and sprinkle iron filings over it. The filings all line up, showing the underlying shape of the magnetic field. What we’d really like to do now is perform the same experiment with the entire Universe, that is, fly around the cosmos in a spaceship and sprinkle iron filings everywhere to see the shape of the underlying magnetism. However, since this isn’t very practical, we instead need to use far more clever and indirect approaches in which we study magnetism by the ways in which it subtly changes the starlight shining through it.

What excites me about studying cosmic magnetism is that it’s absolutely everywhere, and yet we know almost nothing about it. In astronomy, if we want to study something, we usually expect to be able to point a telescope at it and make a picture of it. But you can point the most powerful telescope in the world at magnetism, and you will see nothing. I love the fact that everything we know about cosmic magnetism has to be teased out indirectly by clever tricks and indirect arguments—it’s like the ultimate cryptic crossword puzzle.

What are your other research interests?

What many people might not realize is that the Universe isn’t a calm, steady place, but is full of explosions, bursts, flares and collisions. Some of these cataclysmic events last literally less than the blink of an eye, with durations of just a few milliseconds. But these represent some of the most energetic and exotic processes in the Universe, far beyond what we could ever hope to reproduce in a lab on Earth. Many of these transient events are so rare that with a normal telescope you’re never going to be lucky enough to catch one in the act. The only way to see them and learn more about them is to use new types of telescopes that use a “fish-eye-lens” approach to looking at the sky. With these panoramic views of the heavens, we get a dramatic new view of these explosions and flares all over the sky, captured in real time. My colleagues and I are using a number of new wide-field telescopes to look for sudden changes in the sky, and then to study and understand the exotic types of objects that this approach can reveal.

You’ve written a popular astronomy book, Extreme Cosmos, and you’ve worked to engage the public in science in many other ways. Why is public outreach important?

Public outreach is very important for a few reasons. First, a lot of science is funded with tax dollars, and the public have a right to know how their money is being spent. Second, I think it’s crucial that everyone becomes comfortable with science, and sees it as a thing to embrace and support rather than be concerned or fearful of. Astronomy acts as a gateway to all the rest of science and technology—it draws people in, gets them interested in science and teaches them the value of discovery and of research. Finally, I think science without any public outreach is like an orchestra that practices its repertoire all the time but never puts on a public performance: science is glorious and wonderful and beautiful, and we scientists should make efforts to share this with everyone else, rather than keep the wonder all to ourselves.

A male Rosetta comet probe scientist created a stir last year with a shirt many deemed sexist. How far along do you think we’ve come in terms of gender equity in science?

I think progress on this front has been modest over the last few decades and that we have a long way to go. While undergraduate science classes often have a healthy female fraction, the numbers thin out quite steadily as one moves up the food chain to graduate student, then to postdoc, then to faculty. We need to not just attract women to science, but to find ways to keep women in science. More broadly, if the mix of genders, ethnicity and diversity in your university science department is different from what you find on the streets of Toronto or on the subway, this means you’re not providing fair and equal access to opportunities in your discipline, nor are you getting access to the full range of possible new ideas and contributions.

How would you describe the state of astronomy in Canada right now? What does the future hold?

What has struck me so far in Canadian astronomy is the abnormal concentration of astronomy “gurus”—a host of people who aren’t just good researchers, but whose ideas and techniques have defined the field. I’m looking forward to meeting these astronomers and hearing more about their work. Looking to the future, it’s an exciting time for Canadian astronomy, in that Canada is lined up to play a key role in two of the world’s biggest astronomy projects: the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in optical and infra-red light, and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in radio waves. Together, the TMT and SKA aim to answer some of the most fundamental questions in science, ranging from the beginning of the cosmos and the formation of the first stars, through to the nature of gravity, space and time, and also the ultimate question of whether we are alone in the Universe. My personal interests are in the SKA, a radio telescope 100 times more powerful than anything previously built. Canada has a combination of world-class technical expertise and strong scientific leadership in radio astronomy, and I’m looking forward to being part of that community and to help make the SKA happen.

Can you talk about your vision for the Dunlap Institute?

On the research front, I want to make the Dunlap Institute world renowned in two types of astronomy: innovative hardware and innovative software. Almost everything we know about the rest of the Universe, we know from simply gathering light from distant stars and galaxies. I see the Dunlap’s role as finding ways to gather that light in new and clever ways through breakthroughs in instrumentation, and to then process and manipulate the resulting images through new approaches to computation and data processing. Sitting alongside the excellent research, I want Dunlap to have an international reputation for the quality of its mentoring and training of young scientists, and I want to create innovative and unique outreach programs that open up the excitement of science to new communities.

Finally, how has the transition from Australia to Canada been?

It’s been great! Everyone talks about how cold Toronto winters are, but nobody ever mentioned that winter is glorious and sunny. So, no complaints about the weather at all so far. My family and I have settled in extremely smoothly, and we’re now beginning to enjoy everything the city has to offer. I’ve just finished reading A Concise History of Canada and am about to start on Hockey for Dummies. Once that’s done, I should be able to sensibly talk about both politics and sports, which will be key planks in a successful social life.