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Jewish McGill prof first woman to win coveted Gerhard Herzberg medal

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Victoria Kaspi
Victoria Kaspi

Astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi is an anomaly: a top scientist and a celebrity.

The McGill University professor, however, is uncomfortable with the latter label and has shunned the spotlight since she received the 2016 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in February, the highest honour bestowed by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Kaspi, 48, is the first woman and one of the youngest recipients of the medal since it was first awarded in 1991. It includes a $1-million grant over five years to further the winner’s research.

The NSERC described Kaspi as one of the world’s leading experts on neutron stars, the remnants of the most massive stars in the Milky Way.

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Kaspi, director of the McGill Space Institute, was cited for her “seminal research [that] sheds light on how stars evolve, how they die and, ultimately, the very nature of matter under extreme conditions.”

Kaspi came down to earth to accept one community honour: she was special guest at the annual gala fundraiser of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR) on April 14 at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.

The theme of the evening was “Israel in Space,” and she joined keynote speaker Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Centre at the Fischer Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya.

For Kaspi, plumbing the cosmos is motivated by the “wonder” of it all, the ability to look back in time to the origin of the universe and see how it works.

“The science is what drives me. I love my job,” she said. “I could talk for hours about neutron stars and black holes.”

Instead, she concentrated on some facts about why it is important to spend the money, including the $243 million pledged by the Harper government as Canada’s contribution to an international project to build an observatory with a 30-metre telescope in Hawaii.

For one thing, Kaspi pointed out, the telescope is to be built by a Canadian company, Dynamic Structures of Port Coquitlam, B.C., best known for manufacturing amusement park rides.

The laser technology space researchers developed to correct the distorting “twinkling” of stars is now being used in laser eye surgery, she said, citing another example of a benefit.

The giant radio dishes she uses in her own work to collect data from the beyond may have an even more direct impact on the economy. The same algorithms it uses are being applied to forecasting the stock market, she said.

There are many more, she indicated, from improvements in sonar detection to the manipulation of x-rays for which space research can be thanked.

Altogether, applications of space research are worth “billions of dollars,” she said.

Kaspi, whose father is Israeli, applauded Israel’s space program and its collaboration with NASA in research.

Inbar, who was headed to Washington the following week to discuss space missile defence with officials, said Israel’s observation satellite program has come a long way since the first Ofeq was launched in 1988.

The Israel Space Agency must launch satellites toward the west, rather than the east with the rotation of the Earth as all other countries do, to avoid enemy territory, he said. Having to compensate for lost capability has resulted in speedily launched and very reliable satellites, he added. Israel has not lost one satellite in the program’s history.

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Today, Israel’s satellites orbit the Earth at 500-kilometre altitude several times a day sending back high quality photos, he said, even at night and through clouds using radar.

While enhancing security is the impetus, Inbar said Israel shares the images with other countries when they have been hit by natural disasters – pro bono. In addition to the United States, the Israel Space Agency co-operates with several other nations, and welcomes more, Inbar said.

The evening commemorated Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.

CIJR founder and director Frederick Krantz said the institute chose to highlight Israel’s little-known achievements in space because it believes that advocacy should include raising awareness of the Jewish state’s contributions to humanity.

“The delegitimization of Israel must be fought by positive affirmation,” he said.