Columbia Astrophysicist Brian Metzger Named 2020 Blavatnik Laureate

Brian Metzger delivers a presentation on his research at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting. (Photo: Courtesy of AAS)

Brian Metzger, a Columbia astrophysicist whose seminal research settled the longstanding question about the origin of gold in the universe, has been named the 2020 Blavatnik Laureate in Physical Sciences and Engineering.

Metzger’s award is one of three Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, which are given annually by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and administered by The New York Academy of Sciences.

The award honors the nation’s most exceptional young scientists and engineers whose research is changing science and our understanding of the world. Each laureate will receive $250,000, the largest unrestricted scientific prize offered to early career scientists. Metzger is the first Blavatnik National Awards Laureate from Columbia.

Metzger, professor of physics, predicted that gold, along with all the stable elements on the lower part of the periodic table, was created in a collision of two merging neutron stars called a “kilonova.” In 2017, the LIGO gravitational wave observatory recorded the first observed kilonova explosion, and measurements taken after this discovery confirmed Metzger’s prediction—the first compelling evidence that the heaviest elements present in the universe, like gold, were created by such cataclysmic events.

“This year, the physical sciences and engineering jury chose a superstar in the field of astrophysics,” said Nicholas B. Suntzeff, distinguished professor of the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University and member of the jury. “Brian Metzger has made multiple and profound theoretical predictions that have proven to be true, something that is rare in the field of astronomy. One of those predictions—how gold was made—is an everyday question that children might ask, but to which a true scientific answer had remained elusive.”

The three national laureates were selected from 305 nominations submitted by 161 of the nation’s leading universities and research institutions, representing 41 states. Nominees, eligible if age 42 or younger, were evaluated by three independent juries, one for each of the awards’ categories of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering and Chemistry. The judging panels, composed of some of America’s most eminent scientists, selected the laureates from a group of 31 finalists. Four of the finalists were from Columbia.

Robert Mawhinney, dean of the Division of Natural Sciences at Columbia, said Metzger’s work has ushered in a new era in astronomy that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos. “Brian’s theoretical work predicting the details of the light emitted from the merger of two neutron stars has closely matched the observed results, a delight for any theoretician, and, in doing so, has shown that these mergers are the source of heavy elements, such as gold, in our universe,“ Mawhinney said. “Along with this remarkable work, Brian has also been preparing the next generation of astrophysicists, as an advisor and mentor to many students and postdocs.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the annual Blavatnik National Awards ceremony and gala dinner in honor of the 2020 laureates and finalists has been postponed to 2021. The 2020 Blavatnik awards honorees will be celebrated alongside the 2021 honorees, on Sept. 27, 2021, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The two other 2020 Blavatnik laureates are Clifford Brangwynne, chemical and biological engineering professor, Princeton University, in life sciences, and William R. Dichtel, chemistry professor, Northwestern University, in chemistry.

— Carla Cantor, Columbia News

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