American Astronomical Society awards the Warner Prize to Ohio State researcher

Astronomy/Physics Professor Christopher Hirata (Credit: The Ohio State University)
Astronomy/Physics Professor Christopher Hirata (Credit: The Ohio State University)

Just as several next-generation cosmological telescopes are coming online, Ohio State University researcher Christopher Hirata has won the 2014 Helen B. Warner Prize for laying some the theoretical and observational groundwork to make them a reality.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) awards the Warner Prize for outstanding observational or theoretical research by a young astronomer.

Specifically, AAS cited Hirata’s “remarkable cosmological studies, particularly his observational and theoretical work on weak gravitational lensing, one of the most important tools for assessing the distribution of mass in the universe,” as well as his “work on cosmological recombination, structure formation, and dark energy and cosmic acceleration, and for the extraordinary depth of understanding he brings to these subjects. His work is facilitating the next generation of important cosmological experiments.”

Winners of the Warner Prize must be younger than 36 years of age or have received their Ph.D. degree within the last eight years. Hirata actually earned his PhD in physics from Princeton nine years ago (in 2005), but since he was only 22 years old at the time, he is well below the age limit for the prize today. Prior to his time at Princeton, he earned his BS in physics from Caltech at age 19.

Now a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio State, he’s come of age during a time when advances in computing have super-charged both theoretical and experimental research — especially in cosmology, where the subject matter literally covers the entire universe.

Hirata says that he’s excited to see results from the newly launched Dark Energy Survey Camera and the Subaru Hyper Suprime Cam. Such cameras are designed to collect massive amounts of data, but with advanced statistical analysis, computers can now zero in on key pieces of data that help explain how dark matter and dark energy affect the structure of the universe.

Thanks to such analyzes, “the signal-to-noise ratio for cosmological data is now an order of magnitude higher” than it was even just ten years ago, Hirata said.

As to the other qualification for the Warner Prize, winners must have made a significant contribution to either observational or theoretical astronomy within the last five years. Hirata has done both, according to David Weinberg, professor and vice chair of the Department of Astronomy at Ohio State.

“Chris is the very rare example of a brilliant theorist who will also dig deeply into observational measurements and understands intricate details of how telescopes and instruments work. The range of work that he has done is breathtaking, and it’s clear that he’s going to make all sorts of major contributions in the years to come,” Weinberg said.

To Hirata, it seems natural that many astronomers today don’t wear the sole label of “observer” or “theorist.”

“A lot of people do some of both, and it’s because the theory and observations have become so interconnected,” he explained. “Theorists look at the observational data to try to understand what an instrument does and build models from fundamental principles. Then they try to predict what the view through the telescope would look like.”

“The two sides need each other,” he concluded.

He is currently part of a team working on a new space telescope that could reveal the nature of dark energy: the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which NASA hopes to launch sometime around 2024. Ohio State is the only university to have three participants on the WFIRST team: Hirata, Weinberg, and Scott Gaudi, professor of astronomy.

Mysterious and unseen elements of the universe such as dark matter and dark energy can be hard to understand, even for PhD-level scientists. As a relatively new faculty member at Ohio State, Hirata is teaching an undergraduate class on two other, sometimes hard-to-grasp invisible phenomena: electricity and magnetism.

John Beacom, professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio State and director of the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP), said that Hirata is especially generous and effective in helping students through research and teaching.

“In addition to the outstanding record of accomplishments on his own research, Chris fits in very well with the style of CCAPP, being interested in many topics and also being easily approachable,” Beacom added.

Hirata is the second Ohio State faculty member to win the Warner Prize. The first was Gaudi in 2009.

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