Dr. Gary Hinshaw, who received the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, has spent his career asking questions about the universe. And while the UBC professor of astronomy and astrophysics understands that the answers may take generations to unravel, he believes the journey is worth the effort. By looking at the bigger picture, his team is uncovering pieces of the universal puzzle that could have a huge impact on everyday life on Earth.
Cosmology is the study of the entire universe from the perspective of physics
The first of its kind, the CHIME radio telescope is mapping the expansion of the universe
Nature hides 96 per cent of all matter and energy in the universe in the form of dark matter and dark energy
What are you researching and why is it significant for life on Earth?
I’m a member of a team working with a radio telescope in the Okanagan called CHIME (the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment). CHIME is designed to make the largest map of the universe ever attempted. The data from this map will allow us to determine the expansion history of the universe and understand how dark energy is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up over time.
We know that roughly three-quarters of energy density in the universe is comprised of dark energy. It’s the dominant energy force in the universe and we know almost nothing about it, other than its effect on the expansion.
If we can figure that out, it could have dramatic implications for our understanding of basic physics. And the more we understand about physics, the more we can harness it for technological purposes.
For example, our understanding of quantum physics really crystallized at the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s led to essentially all modern-day electronics. Computers and transistors are all by-products of our understanding of quantum mechanics. That’s a pretty dramatic impact.
So perhaps if we understand more about dark energy, it could have a profound impact on the late 21st or 22nd century — in ways we can’t even fathom yet.
You mentioned that this kind of curiosity-driven research can have economically beneficial spin-offs. Can you give a few examples?
The person who originally developed Wi-Fi was a radio astronomer. Wi-Fi signals are transmitted with radio waves. He didn’t set out to develop Wi-Fi as an end in itself. Rather, it was a spin-off technology that he developed during his attempt to answer his scientific questions.
Another example is with one of our grad students, who developed a particular type of radio antennae that we use on CHIME. The frequency range we operate in is good for sensing water in the soil. Now, a start-up company in the Okanagan Valley is using these antennas to measure water in the soil as part of a micro-irrigation strategy to water crops. They put these antennae on big agricultural sprinkler heads and adjust water flow depending on soil moisture. Our program is having a direct spin-off in water-saving irrigation practices.
How has UBC supported you in exploring these big questions?
UBC has been very supportive of cosmological research through its hiring practices and grant applications. For example, the CHIME experiment received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation after passing a rigorous internal review process at UBC.
I also believe that supporting research on big questions like this inspires students, and that’s important for attracting the best students to the university. In the course of doing research, you’re training smart, creative people who go on to be very inventive in lots of different ways.
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