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Toronto astrophysicists pretty much figured out origins of universe Add to ...

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago - give or take an insignificant 260 million years - the piping hot primordial jambalaya of the original universe began to expand. Physicists now agree we shouldn't have called it the Big Bang. The Big Wheeze would have been more accurate. It happened everywhere at once.

About 13.7 billion years later - in layman's terms, a few weekends ago - 180 of the world's top theoretical astrophysicists gathered at the University of Toronto to congratulate each other on figuring out that number.

Say those words: theoretical astrophysicist. It may not sound like a real job. But they were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics.

Most Canadians don't know it, but CITA is one of the world's crack centres for theoretical astrophysics, the equal of Stanford, Cal Tech, Cambridge University or Princeton.

"It's a world-class institution that has dominated its field," says Wendy Freedman, director of Pasadena's Carnegie Institute of Science.

The brainiacs gathered in the nondescript brown brick McLennan building, where physics is taught at U of T, were also celebrating the 60th birthday of J. Richard (Dick) Bond. The BondFest bore a resemblance to a weekend blowout for very, very intelligent frat boys, which Prof. Bond was before he became one of the world's most-cited cosmologists and a past director of CITA, where he collaborated with almost everyone in the room.

For four days, the astrophysicists drank coffee and wine, made physicist jokes about Prof. Bond ("the force we call Dick") and delivered detailed lectures about accreting millisecond X-ray pulsars and other impenetrably cutting-edge work. It was not a big crowd. Norman Murray, the current director of CITA, was nursing a beer at the opening reception when he ventured that only 100 people in Canada, and maybe 1,000 worldwide, understand the mathematics of early-universe physics.

"By 'early'," Dr. Murray added (physicists like to add things), "most people mean the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang."

We know the age of the universe within probably 2 per cent accuracy. It's 13.7 billon years. It really is. It's impressive. We know the total matter content of the universe - it's 4 per cent. That's the stuff we recognize as matter, basically protons. The rest is something we don't understand. Dr. Murray

That's what it's like talking to astrophysicists: They say a clear, fascinating thing, and follow it with endless upsetting complications. This is the way they tell the truth. The difference between them and most people is that astrophysicists aren't afraid of what they don't understand. That approach stood CITA in good stead for a quarter of a century as it roamed the skies in search of what even two decades ago seemed like the unanswerable.

But astrophysics is changing, and not just theoretically. Having proved how the universe developed, CITA and its band of merry speculators face daunting new challenges. The field has grown exponentially, the cost of experiments is through the roof and competition for research dollars is reaching fireball temperature - especially with radical competitors such as Waterloo's BlackBerry-funded Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in the hunt.

More to the point, the easy problems in the universe have been solved. We have a fair idea how all this got here. Physicists now have to figure out why. That's a much harder question.

Catching the cosmic microwave

That the University of Toronto ended up as one of the world's leading centres of theoretical astrophysics was not a random event. In the late 1970s, a cell of thinkers within the Canadian Astronomical Society decided to create an institute for their big theories.

"We thought, well, for a little bit of money, because this is theory and not very expensive, we could have a big impact," remembers Peter Martin, one of CITA's founders.

Prof. Martin and his fellow sky watchers persuaded the National Science and Engineering Research Council to hand over $150,000 and held a competition as to which university would host the new institute. Toronto won. It was 1983.

Prof. Martin had trained at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge under the legendary Sir Martin Reese (galaxy formation, quasars, now Britain's Astronomer Royal) and the late Fred Hoyle (stellar nucleosynthesis, panspermia). He wanted

CITA to have a similar structure - not a traditional faculty with graduate students, but a looser, creative think tank full of ambitious postdoctoral students.

"Graduate students are conservative," Prof. Bond points out. "They go to the big institution with the big name. But postdocs, they know what's happening. They follow minds."

The team hired Scott Tremaine, a Toronto-raised expert on the dynamics of galaxies, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to be the first director and lured Dick Bond back to Toronto from Stanford. Two postdocs were hired the first year. Today, there are 24. They earn $55,000 a year.

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