Q&A with Jason Hessels, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Transient Astrophysics 

“Astronomy might seem like the study of far-away things that have little bearing on our lives on Earth. But, at its core, astronomy is really about understanding our place in the Universe: what we are and how we came to be”
Jason Hessels is Canada Excellence Research Chair in Transient AstrophysicsKirsten van Santen

In a ceremony today at Simon Fraser University, the Honourable Terry Beech, Minister of Citizens’ Services, announced that Professor Jason Hessels has been named the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Transient Astrophysics at McGill University.

Hessels, who joins McGill from the University of Amsterdam’s Anton Pannekoek Institute of Astronomy and ASTRON (Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy), is recognized as a global leader in the study of transient astrophysical phenomena, events that can be observed only briefly – from milliseconds to years – compared to the lifetimes of stars and galaxies. His research focuses on the use of networks of geographically distributed radio telescopes to detect what are known as `fast radio bursts,’ mysterious flashes of radio waves emitted from deep in the Universe.

“Fast radio bursts are one of the most intriguing questions in astrophysics, with the potential to help us answer fundamental questions about the formation and makeup of the Universe,” said Bruce Lennox, Dean of Science. “We are thrilled that Jason will join our world-leading researchers in the field to accelerate the discovery and study of these phenomena.”

“I am beyond thrilled to welcome Professor Jason Hessels back to McGill as a CERC Chair,” said Victoria Kaspi, Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology, Distinguished James McGill Chair, and Director of the Trottier Space Institute at McGill. “He brings tremendous talent and energy to the Department of Physics and the Trottier Space Institute. He will be an exceptional mentor to our students and a great colleague.”

In this interview for the McGill Reporter, Hessels discusses his work to detect and better understand fast radio bursts, explaining how these quick flashes might provide new insights into how stars and galaxies were formed as the evolution of the Universe unfolded. He also touches on his hopes for future discoveries in radio astronomy and describes why McGill – where he received his PhD in 2007 – is a major leader in the field.

Can you tell us about the focus of your research and why it is important?

My research focuses on using the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes to detect short flashes of radio waves from galaxies that are billions of lightyears from Earth. We call these flashes `fast radio bursts,’ but we aren’t sure what is producing them. One of the leading theories is that these cosmic flashes are created by `sparks’ from ultra-magnetic stars known as `magnetars.’ With the CERC, I aim to unravel this cosmic mystery and to start using fast radio bursts as a way to study the otherwise invisible material between stars and galaxies. This gives us a uniquely powerful way to study the evolution of the Universe over billions of years of cosmic history.

What are your hopes for advances in your field of research in the next five years?

I think we have only scratched the surface in terms of the types of fast radio burst signals we can detect. With increasingly advanced telescopes and computers – coupled with Artificial Intelligence algorithms to sift through the data – I’m hopeful that we’ll discover fundamentally new types of radio flashes that give us important insights into the extremes of the Universe – including objects like black holes and neutron stars.

Are there things you wish people understood better about your field of research? 

Astronomy might seem like the study of far-away things that have little bearing on our lives on Earth. But, at its core, astronomy is really about understanding our place in the Universe: what we are and how we came to be. At the same time, the technologies and techniques we develop to study the Universe have important applications in our daily lives. One famous example in my own field of radio astronomy is the development of algorithms that led to practical WiFi networks.

What makes McGill an attractive place for you to pursue this research? 

McGill is an international leader in the field of radio astronomy and the quest to understand fast radio bursts. With the Canadian CHIME telescope, it is possible to scan a huge swath of the sky (about 1000 times the size of the full Moon) and discover these rare but fascinating radio flashes. By bringing my experience with geographically distributed radio telescope networks, we will have a combined team that is poised to make the next major discoveries in the field.

Learn more about McGill’s three new Canada Excellence Research Chairs