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Written in the stars: WVU astrophysicists set to receive Shaw Prize, the ‘Nobel of the East’

For Duncan Lorimer and Maura McLaughlin, working at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico set off a sequence of life events that would include marriage, children, finding a home at West Virginia University, an out-of-this-world scientific discovery and, now, earning a highly prestigious award described as the “Nobel Prize of the East.”

The internationally renowned astrophysicists are traveling to Hong Kong to receive the Shaw Prize, which honors individuals who’ve achieved distinguished and significant advances in their respective fields that further societal progress, enhance quality of life and enrich humanity’s spiritual civilization.

Lorimer and McLaughlin, both professors in physics and astronomy in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, are credited with helping discover fast radio bursts — intense, unexplained pulses of energy, coming from billions of light years away, that pop for mere milliseconds. Since they discovered the first one in 2007, several thousand of these mysterious cosmic flashes have been spotted.

The Shaw Prize reaffirms the magnitude of their discovery, in addition to the wealth of research and innovations they’ve contributed to the world of astronomy and toward elevating the profile of WVU.

Building a foundation

If not for a playful complaint about the speed of computers, the road to discovering fast radio bursts may have taken a different path.

While at Arecibo Observatory, Lorimer, working as a research scientist, complained to McLaughlin, then a visiting graduate student, about her using computers without permission. Lorimer was convinced the speed of the computers, particularly his, were slowed down substantially.

“That was our first communications — me asking her to stop sneaking onto my computer,” Lorimer recalled. “So it all started there and things got better.”

They got better enough that they subsequently joined the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the United Kingdom before country roads called them to the United States.

“Duncan and I loved working at Jodrell, but I wanted to be closer to family,” said McLaughlin, a Philadelphia native. “An opportunity to do that while building our own astronomy group brought us to WVU in 2006. A bonus was proximity to the largest radio telescope in the continental U.S., the Green Bank Telescope.”

Lorimer agreed Green Bank was a major draw.

“We were contacted by people at the Observatory at the time alerting us to the fact that WVU wanted to forge closer links with Green Bank,” he said. “As both of us were and still are heavy users of the Green Bank Telescope, this made a lot of sense. When we first interviewed here in 2005, neither of us had spent much time in West Virginia and we have fallen in love with the state ever since.”

Male and female wearing red hard hats standing on a platform with West Virginia Mountains and the Greenbank radio telescope in the background.

“The first few years in West Virginia were a personal and professional whirlwind,” McLaughlin recalled. “We arrived with a baby — Callum, now 18 — and soon had two more — Finlay and Owen, now 16 and 12. Duncan and I also built a new graduate program in astronomy and more than tripled the number of astronomy faculty over the next decade.”

When Lorimer and McLaughlin came to WVU, it lacked a graduate program in astronomy. In fact, the astronomy department itself was essentially a one-man show. In 1975, Jack Littleton became the first astronomy faculty member hired at the University. Until Lorimer and McLaughlin joined him more than 30 years later, Littleton was still teaching most classes.

“Jack was instrumental in helping us get started,” McLaughlin said. “He was doing it all by himself. He passed away a few years after we came here, so sadly he did not see the culmination of what he helped start.”

Astronomy education and research has continued to flourish at WVU since the duo’s arrival.

In addition to tripling the number of astronomy faculty, they have formed partnerships at the state, national and international levels. The couple co-founded the Pulsar Science Collaboratory, with Sue Ann Heatherly at Green Bank Observatory, that has involved thousands of high school students in pulsar searches.

WVU astronomers, including students, are also part of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, or NANOGrav, which recently observed low-frequency gravitational waves that had never previously been detected.

They also established the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology at WVU to further expand the portfolio of astronomy research.

But it’s training the next generation of astrophysicists that’s most rewarding.

“I just graduated my 11th WVU PhD student,” Lorimer said. “Those students, together with the undergraduates we work with both in the classroom and the lab, are really what drives me to continue.”

“It isn’t all about one discovery,” McLaughlin added. “We’ve grown a good number of graduate students and faculty and have built up the astronomy community, and that makes me really proud. I have been fortunate to work with the most incredible students and postdoctoral researchers who are the reason I am excited to come to work each day.”

The news

Lorimer and McLaughlin represent two of only seven recipients of the 2023 Shaw Prize, which are awarded in the categories of astronomy, life sciences and medicine, and mathematical sciences. Australian astrophysicist Matthew Bailes, who’s worked with the couple, is receiving the Shaw Prize along with them.

The nomination process wasn’t entirely clear to them. McLaughlin remembers someone asking for her CV but did not mention the Shaw Prize. In May, the couple was home on a Sunday night when the news arrived.

“We both got the emails at the same time, but Duncan saw it first,” McLaughlin said. “I was upstairs working at 9:30 p.m. and I hear Duncan screaming and he’s running up the stairs. He doesn’t scream much to begin with, maybe only when the dogs do something bad, and I’m wondering ‘Why is he screaming late on a Sunday night?’ He told me to pull up the email and I thought it was a prank. I read it again and realized it was real. That was quite a Sunday night.”

The Shaw Prize was established in 2002 in Hong Kong by philanthropist Run Run Shaw, an advocate for the advancement of science, which is a cause shared by the duo.

A curiosity for scientific knowledge and uncovering breakthroughs began to form in the couple’s teenage years.

For Lorimer, he was bitten by the astronomy bug when a high school teacher trusted he and some friends with keys to the school’s telescope. One night, they observed a lunar eclipse.

McLaughlin, on the other hand, stumbled upon Steven Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” as a 16-year-old.

“The concepts of black holes, compact objects and spacetime completely captivated me, and my all-girls Catholic high school provided freedom to study ‘nerdy’ subjects without worrying about gender norms.”

No end in sight

Lorimer and McLaughlin have achieved more in academia than most dream of and, after all the discoveries and accolades, the Shaw Prize could be viewed as the peak of their careers.

But there’s more work to do. There are more pulsars, fast radio bursts, gravitational waves and, perhaps, other undiscovered phenomenon waiting to be detected.

“I’m currently involved in a number of projects aimed at discovering more sources in the transient sky,” Lorimer said. “FRBs offer a way for us to do a census of compact objects in the nearby and distant universe and so I am looking forward to playing a role in this area in the next five years. I am also very excited about the role of artificial intelligence in our work. How we can leverage that more to potentially discover new phenomena and just process our data more efficiently is an area that I see a lot of potential in the coming years.”

“The story is not over, particularly for fast radio bursts,” McLaughlin added. “We still don’t know what creates them. We don’t understand the physics that make them so unusually bright or the galaxies they come from. We’re looking forward to better understanding them and maximizing their discovery. We’ve really just started.”



WVU Research Communications


Shauna Johnson
Director of News Communications
WVU University Relations

This article is republished from WVU Today — read the original article.