Columbia Astrophysicist Receives 2019 New Horizons in Physics Prize

October 19, 2018
Neutron Star Merger

Courtesy of NASA

Brian Metzger, an associate professor of astrophysics, has won a 2019 Breakthrough New Horizons in Physics Prize for pioneering predictions of the electromagnetic signal from a neutron star merger, and for leadership in the emerging field of multi-messenger astronomy.

The $100,000 prize recognizes promising early-career researchers who have already produced important work. In 2010, Metzger coined the term “kilonova” when he and collaborators authored a well-known paper that predicted the brightness, timescale, and color of the flash of light that should result from the collision of two binary stars, should ever such a merger be detected.

That prediction was critical in the discovery, identification, and understanding of such a flash by the LIGO scientific collaboration six years later, in August 2017. Additionally, by using Metzger’s models, astronomers were able to calculate how much gold, uranium, platinum and other heavy metals would be produced in such a blast and, as a result, now know that the heaviest metals in the universe, from gold to platinum, are formed in explosions like this one spotted 130 million light-years away.

“When I first heard about LIGO’s detection last August and the discovery of fading light similar consistent with our predictions, it was an exhilarating experience,” Metzger said. “This was the first time we had witnessed such a catastrophic event up close, accompanied by the direct creation of the heaviest elements. It’s an incredible feeling to understand one of nature’s secrets, revealed so suddenly and conclusively.”

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its sponsors — Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki — this year awarded a collective total of $22 million to nine researchers. These include three $3 million Breakthrough Prizes recognizing achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics, and six $100,000 Breakthrough New Horizon Awards for early-career achievements.

Born and raised in Iowa, Metzger received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 2003 and his PhD from the Department of Physics at UC Berkeley in 2009. He then held a NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship at Princeton University before moving in 2013 to a faculty position at Columbia University. He was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship in 2014 and was named a 2018 Finalist of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists.

His research covers a broad range of topics in theoretical astrophysics, including compact objects (white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes), stellar explosions (supernovae), nucleosynthesis (astrophysical origin of the elements), and the electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational wave sources. The 2019 Breakthrough Prize and New Horizon Prize recipients will be recognized at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, hosted by acclaimed actor, producer and philanthropist Pierce Brosnan, on Sunday, November 4, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic.