Gregory Sivakoff

Top 40 Under 40 2014

Photography Curtis Trent

Age: 35

Job Title: Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Why He’s Top 40: For furthering the study of astronomy on an international level, while inspiring everyday citizens to look at the night sky with curiosity.

How I Relax: “I’m a big foodie. I like to eat. I like to cook. Growing up, we used to go out once a week. Instead of going on vacation once a year, we’d go out to eat to dinner.”

Gregory Sivakoff’s a self proclaimed foodie – and, while he loves to eat, so do his study subjects. For the past several years, Sivakoff has been studying the behaviours of black holes. Using an array of 10 extremely high-powered telescopes that stretch across the United States, he watches as these black holes interact with nearby stars.

Matter falls from the star to the black hole; Sivakoff says it’s like the black hole is eating a meal, crumbs falling from its mouth as it greedily gorges itself. When the black hole is eating, it lets off an occasional “burp” – spewing out jets of particles at extremely high speeds – with such intensity, it can be detected across the galaxy.

In 2012, Sivakoff wrote about these behaviours in his research which was later printed as a NASA press release that garnered national and international attention, including an interview on CBC’s Quirks & Quarks. The phenomenon is common in outer space, and that’s why Sivakoff, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, is studying it. “We think that the jets that are emitted from these black holes affect how galaxies are formed. The very story of how we got here seems to be intricately tied to black holes,” he says.

But Sivakoff’s involvement in science extends beyond his research, to his role as deputy director of the U of A’s observatory, where 4,000 visitors attend each year. He wants other people to see the night sky as he does – something to inspire awe. And he believes that citizen scientists are able to contribute more than just enthusiasm to science.

In fact, he’s seen it. Last year, he was part of a team that was looking to determine the distance between Earth and binary star system SS Cygni. For two years, he worked with 180 international amateur astronomers, who reported behaviours of the star that resulted in a distance calculation and an article in Science. “We are funded by the public. And the way we say ‘thank you’ is by inspiring all in wonder,” says Sivakoff.

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