In the astronomy course she teaches for non-scientists – Physics 183: The Milky Way Inside and Out – Victoria Kaspi tries to convey the rapid pace of discovery when she assigns the textbook.
You can bet in five or 10 years from now, she tells students, many sections of the textbook will be out of date.
While the content in first-year Physics textbooks hasn’t changed much in over half a century because the topics have been well understood, “We've entered a new era in Astrophysics, where we're discovering new phenomena and developing new ways of understanding things all the time,” says Kaspi, an award-winning astrophysicist who holds the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology and was the co-winner of the 2021 Shaw Prize in Astronomy.
It’s amid that exciting research context that the McGill Space Institute has received a landmark $16-million gift from the Trottier Family Foundation. It was announced in November 2022, alongside a $10-million gift from the Foundation to Université de Montréal in support of its Institute for Research on Exoplanets.
The gift to the McGill Space Institute will provide for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, and program and research capacity support. Half of the gift is earmarked for the construction of an annex to the Space Institute’s building on University St., which will alleviate overcrowding, enhance research collaborations, and make it easier to welcome visitors as part of its public outreach efforts.
In recognition of the historic gifts, the institute will be renamed the Trottier Space Institute at McGill, while Université de Montréal will rename its space institute the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets.
Watch: Trottier Space Institute at McGill at forefront of discovery
A fascination with space
Lorne Trottier, BEng’70, MEng’73, DSc’06, the alumnus whose family foundation is behind the extraordinary gifts, has had a lifelong passion for technology and science, and a fascination with space – the origin and evolution of the universe, the possibility of life elsewhere.
“I think that those questions are of interest to most people on some level,” says Trottier, co-founder of Matrox, an industry leader in computer graphics, video, and imaging products. “It’s human curiosity to understand those fundamental things that's kind of never-ending.”
A voracious reader of science and space news, Trottier is familiar with, and impressed by, the high-calibre research conducted at McGill’s space institute. Noting the private civilian flights to space, Trottier says: “The thought has crossed my mind, but I'd much rather spend my money on supporting research than on a personal joy ride, even though I have nothing against those people who want to do it.”
Trottier received a scholarship as an undergraduate at McGill and thought if he was ever in a position to do so, he would like to give back. “That was probably the thing that seeded it, but in the tech industry, philanthropy has been a big thing for a very long time,” he says.
The Trottier Family Foundation’s many contributions to McGill are palpable on campus, from the Lorne M. Trottier Building, which houses the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Computer Science, to the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design, as well as the Trottier Public Science Symposium, which delivers popular public science education beyond McGill’s campuses.
Dramatic discoveries in Astrophysics
The Trottier Space Institute at McGill (TSI) is an interdisciplinary centre that brings together researchers in Astrophysics, Planetary Science, Atmospheric Sciences, Astrobiology and other space-related areas. The research covers a range of topics, including extrasolar planets, mysterious fast radio bursts, black holes and cosmology – the science of understanding the origin and evolution of the universe – as well as studies of climate, both on Earth and in planetary atmospheres.
“Some of the things that are happening now, people were just dreaming of when I was a graduate student,” says Andrew Cumming, an associate professor in the Physics Department and a member of the TSI. The detection of gravitational waves – ripples in space and time that don’t involve light – is one example. “In the last five years it's finally happened and it's completely revolutionizing astronomy.”
One of the big questions that interests Cumming is understanding how planets form – in particular, how our solar system fits into the story of planet formation across the galaxy.
When Cumming was a graduate student in the mid-ʾ90s, exoplanets – or extrasolar planets, as they’re also called – were just being discovered. They’re planets that orbit a star outside the solar system. “At that point, all the theoretical ideas that we had about how planets form were set by our solar system, because it was the only planetary system we knew,” says Cumming.
“When people tried to figure out how planets form, they used observations from the solar system. But now we have thousands of exoplanets and thousands of solar systems across the galaxy that we know about. As a theorist, trying to come up with ideas about how planets form, it's revolutionized our field because now we have thousands of objects to try to explain and not just one.”
Training the next generation of scientists
One of the biggest impacts of the Trottier Family Foundation gift will be on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, thanks to new fellowship support.
“We have students and postdocs from all over the world who want to come to McGill to work in the Space Institute. This will allow us to recruit them and really to compete with top institutions elsewhere,” says Kaspi, Director of the Trottier Space Institute at McGill.
Encouraging young people to develop their interest in science, whether it’s science outreach or starting to advance their careers as scientists, is important, Lorne Trottier says of the fellowship support.
“Sometimes the young minds with fresh ideas are the ones who often come up with a lot of breakthrough ideas,” Trottier says.
The gift will also enable construction of an annex behind the Space Institute, creating more room for faculty, students, and technology.
Affectionately dubbed ‘the Space Shack’, the greystone building boasts a family-like atmosphere. “It's a very nice friendly environment, but it's just way too small for our needs,” says Kaspi.
Alice Curtin, a graduate student from western Massachusetts, completed her master’s degree at McGill and started her PhD in Astrophysics in the Fall 2021 semester. Her doctoral research focuses on fast radio bursts – fleeting extragalactic pulses or little explosions.
“They’re coming from all over, so tons of different galaxies. We’ve actually seen one in our own galaxy but we’re not actually sure what they are,” Curtin explains. “So, kind of the big question is ‘what even are these objects?’ But on top of that, we can do a lot of really interesting science with them because they come from so far away. We can use them to study these other galaxies.”
Curtin has found an enriching environment at the Space Institute: great research collaboration and resources along with fantastic friendships and discourse on all aspects of astronomy. “There’s people in your office working on various things, but then every day there's coffee and cookies, where you can go and chat with anyone – professors, other graduate students about whatever,” she says.
“I think that's what makes the institute really fantastic is that it doesn't feel competitive. It feels like this huge collaboration of a bunch of scientists who all want to learn, and who all want to advance their field.”
Impact of space research on technology
As an observational cosmologist in McGill’s Physics Department, Professor Matt Dobbs studies the universe as a whole, how it was born, expanded, what it’s made of and how it may evolve or possibly end.
“Our main work is to develop the instrumentation, detectors, telescopes and signal processing electronics that makes those telescopes run,” Dobbs says.
Dobbs played a leadership role in developing Canada’s revolutionary radio telescope CHIME in Penticton, B.C., and is doing the same for an even more powerful Canadian telescope in the works called CHORD.
CHIME uses a custom-built signal processing system to figure out where each bit of light is coming from in the sky, says Dobbs. “Our role here at McGill was to develop the custom electronics that achieved that, working closely with our collaborators across Canada.”
One of the most overlooked and important aspects of space research is its impact on technology developments, and there’s two prongs to that, Kaspi says. “We are very intense users of computing, and we collect massive amounts of data, and we develop algorithms for ever faster computing, ever clever ways of managing and visualizing these massive amounts of data.”
Their trainees who don’t pursue careers in academia get snapped up by companies like Google and Shopify, Kaspi says. “They want people who can handle vast quantities of data.”
The other impact involves instrumentation development – pushing the frontiers of technology and developing tools that can later be used in the marketplace.
“When you’re asking questions about the time after the Big Bang, you’re asking really far-out questions that are answerable with data and observations, but you need novel technologies to do so,” explains Kaspi. “As you push the frontiers of technology forward to address these challenging questions, that technology is very translatable to a variety of industries that maybe never expected them.”
This includes communication satellites, GPS, transformational contributions to high-speed wireless internet, technology used in laser eye surgery, and advances in medical imaging such as MRIs.
Heartfelt appreciation for extraordinary support
In addition to the new landmark support, it was a founding gift from the Trottier Family Foundation in 2015 that enabled the creation of the Space Institute at McGill where researchers have detected thousands of fast radio bursts and identified magnetars as one likely origin of this mysterious phenomenon, helped make the first image of a black hole using the Event Horizon Telescope, and developed a microbial life detection system for space missions.
Kaspi expressed deep gratitude to the Trottier Family Foundation for its support.
“I don't have words to express how grateful I am, and my colleagues are. Their generosity is just so amazing and inspiring – and it inspires us.
“Lorne, in particular, has this tremendous enthusiasm and appreciation and love for what we do and so really I think of Lorne as part of the Space Institute, in that he comes to our events, he asks probing, interesting questions, he's on top of the field,” Kaspi says.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that we have such a benefactor to help us achieve our potential. I think we're already competing on the global scale, but this makes it so that we can lead.”