Statistical astronomer Joshua Speagle awarded the Polanyi Prize in physics

January 18, 2023 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

From Arts & Science News

Professor of astrostatistics Joshua Speagle, from the Faculty of Arts & Science’s David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Department of Statistics has won the prestigious Polanyi Prize in physics.

The Polanyi Prize is awarded each year to as many as five researchers from an Ontario university in the early stages of their career. The award is given by the Ontario Council of Universities and is named in honour of John Charles Polanyi, University Professor Emeritus in the Faculty’s Department of Chemistry and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize.

“I'm honoured and humbled to receive the Polanyi Prize and hope to live up to the legacy of John Polanyi that it represents,” says Speagle who is also a Banting-Dunlap Postdoctoral Fellow, a position jointly hosted between the Departments of Statistical Sciences, Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics. “This award highlights the incredibly exciting opportunities enabled by interdisciplinary research such as in astrostatistics and data science and reaffirms Ontario's commitment to supporting similar efforts by future young scientists.

“I hope it helps to highlight the many researchers, friends and collaborators who are all engaged in a collective quest for knowledge while attempting to make the world a better place. I am also unbelievably grateful to the many people who made this possible and who really deserve the majority of credit, including my mentor and colleague Gwen Eadie who is the 2021 Polanyi Prize recipient in physics, as well as my wife Rebecca and my mother Wei.”

The award recognizes researchers in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and economic science. This year, all five prizes were awarded to faculty at the University of Toronto.

“I am thrilled to congratulate our Polanyi Prize winners,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, “because they exemplify the breadth of the scholarship and research in the Faculty — in this case, from the Milky Way Galaxy, to the literature and art of Indigenous writers and artists, to the relationship between health and economic inequality. It is also special because it recognizes individuals who are in the early stages of their careers, meaning we will be seeing exciting work from them for years to come. Congratulations to them all!”

By leveraging the study of astrophysics, statistics and computer science, Speagle is developing new statistical techniques to create a high-resolution 3D map of the Milky Way Galaxy, as well as create new machine learning methods that will help accelerate data processing. This map will be critical in helping scientists and astronomers better visualize the galaxy and understand its past, present and future.

To do this, Speagle is focusing his research on collecting two types of data: interstellar gas and the chemical composition of older stars. The former will provide insight into where new stars are being born and the latter will help determine how stars migrate to new locations across the galaxy.

Additionally, this research will help shed light on what makes the formation of our galaxy unique and provide insight into how other galaxies have formed — helping paint a picture of what the future of the universe might look like.

“The Polanyi prize is such an honor and I'm thrilled that Josh is getting this recognition. It is so well deserved,” says Roberto Abraham, astronomy chair. “Josh is a truly exceptional professor working in one of the fastest growing areas of astrophysics — and that is a dynamite combination. Plus, he is such an inspiring mentor for young people. I cannot wait to see the great stuff he and his students will be contributing to science over the next few years.”

“It is wonderful news for Josh and for the Department of Statistical Sciences,” says Michael Evans, statistical sciences chair. “It is particularly significant given that Josh’s work is making use of statistical methodology to advance our understanding of significant astrophysical phenomena. This lends great support for the value of these techniques and is very inspiring for our students and faculty.”

Read about the other A&S Polanyi Prize Winners:

With files from the Council of Ontario Universities.