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Astrophysics expert wins Helen B. Warner Prize for mapping our galactic home

“It’s rewarding to see my approach for interpreting large data sets appreciated in this way by the community,” says Jo Bovy about being awarded the Helen B. Warner Prize for Astronomy (photo by Diana Tyszko)

The Milky Way Galaxy is a dynamic, cosmic congregation of stars with a complex past, present and future.

For his work in probing the nature of our home galaxy, Jo Bovy, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Galactic Astrophysics in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto, has won the Helen B. Warner Prize for Astronomy.

The prize is awarded annually by the American Astronomical Society in recognition of individuals who have made significant contributions to astronomy early in their careers. The prize dates back to 1954 and Bovy joins an impressive cohort of astronomers who have gone on to leadership roles in the field and made significant discoveries, including U of T alumna and planetary scientist Sara Seager, Big Bang theorist David Schramm, pioneering cosmologist Allan Sandage, and many others.

“It’s rewarding to see my approach for interpreting large data sets appreciated in this way by the community,” says Bovy.

“It’s very gratifying to receive this recognition, and I’m grateful to my colleagues and my collaborators in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for their invaluable help and support in this work.”

Bovy joined U of T in 2015, after a postdoctoral position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.. He was the recipient of a Sloan Fellowship in 2016. In his career, he has developed innovative techniques for analyzing the vast amounts of data generated by today’s large astronomical surveys, and he has used those methods to study the structure, dynamic nature and evolution of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Bovy’s analysis of data from the Sloan survey has revealed that the galaxy’s structure is far more complicated than previously thought, in ways that have implications in our understanding of its formation and evolution. His work has revealed for the first time how rapidly the galaxy’s disk grew during its early stages, and how the process of star formation within it has evolved. It has also led to a breakthrough measurement of dark matter in the vicinity of the Sun.

Bovy’s current focus is to use observations made with the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, which is mapping with unprecedented accuracy the positions and motions of over a billion stars in the Sun’s galactic neighbourhood. His goal is to use Gaia data to learn more about the dynamic nature of the galaxy’s spiral arms and its interactions with other galaxies.

“Jo is bringing new methods to the analysis of the motions and spectra of stars,” says Ray Carlberg, chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“These approaches are providing new insight into the distribution and nature of the mysterious dark matter, as well as knowledge into how our home, the Milky Way Galaxy, was formed.”