Prof. Victoria Kaspi from McGill University won the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering today. Not only is this NSERC’s highest honour, but Prof. Kaspi becomes the first ever woman to win it since the medal’s establishment in 1991.
NSERC presents: A conversation with Victoria Kaspi.
Dense but not boring
Prof. Kaspi is being honoured for her research on neutron stars: the remains of massive stars that exploded in a supernova, but weren’t quite massive enough to turn into black holes. These celestial bodies are so dense that just one teaspoon would weigh a billion tonnes. That’s like 200,000,000 elephants crammed into your spoon. Substances like this just don’t exist on Earth, so neutron stars are the perfect place to study extreme physics, like the effects of relativity.
In 2008, Prof. Kaspi and her team used a binary pulsar, essentially two fast-spinning neutron stars orbiting closely around one another, to test one of the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “Einstein’s theory predicted that, in such a field, an object’s spin axis should slowly change direction,” Kaspi said in a 2008 interview. And that’s exactly what they found: the spin axis of one of the two pulsars was slowly changing direction. The existence of gravitational waves, another prediction of the theory of relativity, was confirmed just last week.
Also in 2008, Kaspi was involved in the discovery of only the second known magnetar (a type of neutron star with a very strong magnetic field) in the galaxy. This magnetar became particularly interesting in 2013 when it suddenly slowed its spin an emitted a burst of X-rays. She was also involved in discovering the fastest spinning pulsar, PSR J1748-2446ad, that rotates at a whopping 716 times per second.
Clearly, Kaspi is a star in astrophysics research and certainly a role model for women in STEM. Perhaps this is the first step towards more female Nobel Prize winners in physics.