WHY HE’S TOP 40: Heinke’s research into the nature of neutron stars has catapulted him onto the international radar.
KEY TO SUCCESS: “You have to be prepared and then, when an opportunity comes along, you snag it.”
There’s a tiny pinprick on Craig Heinke’s laptop near the middle of a decal depicting his favourite supernova, Cassiopeia A. His research into this inconspicuous bright spot has earned the scientist and University of Alberta associate professor of physics international acclaim and the attention of NASA.
Heinke says that teeny dot is actually the size of Edmonton and the mass of our sun.
Using data from mostly x-ray telescopes, like the Earth-orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory, to learn about them, Heinke and collaborator Wynn Ho determined that this particular neutron star has a thin layer of gaseous carbon over its surface.
What’s more, they discovered that the star’s superfluid core (matter that behaves like liquid with zero viscosity) is cooling at a very rapid rate. Their work, published between 2009 and 2011, offers scientists a better understanding of neutron stars and an insight into particle interactions in high-density matter. The findings sparked two major press releases from NASA and are being used as justification to keep funding Chandra.
Heinke, who holds a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, grew up in rural Oregon where he fell in love with space at an early age. While he wasn’t able to see many stars in the perpetually overcast Pacific Northwest, he and his brother made up for it by laying scale models of the solar system across the property using sports balls of varying sizes.
During a two-year stint in the Peace Corps following his undergraduate degree, where he taught math, science, world history and English literature to secondary students in Africa, he spent evenings outside with binoculars trained at the night sky, its clarity increased with the altitude of the location.
Now, Heinke is dedicated to generating the same excitement he felt as a child, in others. He speaks about the life cycles of stars or the mysteries of black holes with elementary students, high-school physics teachers and senior citizens with equal enthusiasm, hoping to inspire an interest in astronomy — the “gateway drug” to the sciences. In fact, Heinke says, an interest in science isn’t just fun for those involved, it’s “critical for solving problems in our future.”