back to news Jan. 31, 2014

Ohio State Researcher Wins Top Prize for Young Astronomers

Christopher Hirata, professor of astronomy and physics, has been making news and winning major awards since the age of 13 when he was the youngest American ever to win the International Physics Olympiad.

His latest win is this year's Helen B. Warner Prize for observational or theoretical research from the American Astronomical Society—the premier award for young astronomers who are rising stars in the field.

Typically, those tapped for the award have established a track record for extraordinary discovery and achievement and are the recipients of multiple awards and recognitions for their work.

The selection committee cited Hirata’s “remarkable cosmological studies, particularly his observational and theoretical work on weak gravitational lensing, one of the most important tools for assessing the distribution of mass in the universe.

“His work on cosmological recombination, structure formation, and dark energy and cosmic acceleration, and the extraordinary depth of understanding he brings to these subjects is facilitating the next generation of important cosmological experiments.”

Hirata, in 2012 joined an elite group of young researchers invited to the White House to receive from President Obama the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE. This is the highest honor given by the U. S. Government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers.

PECASE recipients are funded by federal departments and agencies, which annually nominate scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions. Hirata was nominated by the Department of Energy.

In 2013, Hirata was one of a select group of scientists nationwide named Simons Foundation Investigators. Hirata was described by the Simons Foundation as "an outstanding young cosmologist and astrophysicist whose research ranges from purely theoretical investigations to original data analysis." He will receive funding for his work with experimental and observational groups on systematizing the extraction of cosmological data from the cross correlation of different extragalactic surveys—work that "is having an important impact on precision cosmology," according to the foundation.

Hirata joined Ohio State’s physics and astronomy department faculties in August 2013. He also is a faculty member in the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP), a center that is a unique partnership between these two departments that are leaders in their fields.

Hirata, who received his PhD from Princeton University, came to Ohio State from CalTech. With a portfolio of impressive credentials and accomplishments, a full professor at CalTech at age 29, Hirata clearly could have gone anywhere. But he chose to come to Ohio State.

“Astrophysics here as an enterprise is still being built; it is clearly on the rise and the collaborative way research seems to be done here appealed to me,” Hirata said.

Hirata, who says he is “primarily a cosmologist,” studies the tricky problems inherent in what is known thus far about dark energy—the force that makes up nearly three-quarters of the universe. He hopes to tie dark energy to fundamental theories of the universe, using a theoretical framework plus observations, focusing on those found in the microwave background of the universe.

He takes advantage of large-scale sky surveys and other tools used by astronomers to help untangle this phenomenon that he says, “is so bizarre it contradicts all intuition and doesn’t fit into any mathematical framework that describes the universe.”

One of the astronomers he has collaborated with is Scott Gaudi, associate professor of astronomy, also a rising star, winner of the Helen B. Warner Prize in 2008 and also named a PECASE winner the same year as Hirata.

David Weinberg, astronomy professor, Distinguished Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and member of CCAP’s Science Board, also has worked with Hirata, “partly on the design of the next big NASA space telescope. What's amazing is the way he's mastered everything from the abstruse mathematical details of the underlying theories to the detailed arcana of spacecraft mechanics. Scientists with that kind of range are extremely rare, and they have an enormous impact.

“CCAPP has built an extremely strong research program exploiting the synergies at the interface between astronomy and fundamental physics. Chris embodies this idea; it is reflected in his style of work and in his research on dark energy; I'm sure CCAPP was pivotal in his decision to come to Ohio State.”

--Sandi Rutkowski, Arts and Sciences Communications