Columbia Astrophysicist Brian Metzger Awarded Top Prize in High-Energy Astrophysics

The 2019 Rossi Prize has been awarded to Columbia astrophysicist Brian Metzger and Daniel Kasen of the University of California at Berkeley for their theoretical predictions of electromagnetic emission from radioactive nuclei produced in neutron star mergers.

The High-Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) awards the Rossi Prize annually for a significant contribution to high-energy astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent, original work.

Metzger coined the term “kilonova” when he and collaborators authored a well-known paper that predicted the brightness, timescale, and color of the flash of light that should result from the collision of two binary stars, should ever such a merger be detected.

Those predictions were critical in the discovery, identification, and understanding of such a flash by the LIGO scientific collaboration six years later, in August 2017, providing the first compelling evidence for the astrophysical site of rapid neutron capture nucleosynthesis. See related articles:

“This was the first time we had witnessed such a catastrophic event up close, revealing so clearly the characteristic glow from the fresh synthesis of the heaviest elements predicted by theory,” Metzger said. “A huge amount of credit should go to the LIGO/Virgo experiment and the many observational astronomers, whose cunning enabled the discovery of the kilonova.”

Additionally, by using Metzger’s models, astronomers were able to calculate how much gold, uranium, platinum and other heavy metals would be produced in such a blast and, as a result, now know that the heaviest metals in the universe, from gold to platinum, are formed in explosions like this one spotted 130 million light-years away.

“Visions of neutron stars colliding, and precious metals forming in their rubble, were for many years just images in theorists’ minds, so it’s been fun to see them suddenly appear in a faint red glow that we can all see with our own eyes,” said Kasen. “It took a diverse community of many scientists to launch this exciting new field.” 

Jennifer Barnes, a postdoctoral research fellow who works with Metzger at Columbia, has also been awarded the 2019 HEAD Dissertation prize for her dissertation entitled, “Radiation Transport Modeling of Kilonovae and Broad-Lined Ic Supernovae.” This work established the visual appearance of neutron star mergers, also known as the radiative signatures of mergers, between two neutron stars or a neutron star and black hole, as well as the radiative signatures of jet-driven supernovae produced by collapsing massive stars.

“It’s a huge honor to have my dissertation recognized by HEAD, and I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of the multi-messenger community,” said Barnes. “This is a very young field, so we still have a lot of discoveries to look forward to. I’m excited to see what we’ll learn next!”

The Rossi prize is in honor of Professor Bruno Rossi, an authority on cosmic ray physics and a pioneer in the field of X-ray astronomy. As awardees, Metzger and Kasen will receive an engraved certificate and $1,500 award. They will also give a lecture at the AAS meeting in Honolulu, HI, in January 2020. For her prize, Barnes will receive a certificate and a $1,000 award, as well as an opportunity to give a lecture at the upcoming HEAD AAS meeting being held in Monterey, CA, from March 17-21, 2019.

About garen