Thursday, July 18, 2024

Li Di, chief scientist of China’s FAST telescope, wins Marcel Grossmann prize

A Chinese radio astronomer has been named co-winner of this year’s Marcel Grossmann Award, making him the first recipient of the prestigious prize whose research is mainly conducted in China.

Li Di, chief scientist of China’s Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), was recognised for his “groundbreaking contributions to the scientific definition of the most sensitive radio telescope and his numerous innovations in characterising the dynamic universe”.

Li, who left Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2012 to join the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing as a full-time researcher, led the FAST team to “make precise measurements of the interstellar magnetic field and advance the field of fast radio bursts into a high-statistics era,” the awards committee said.

Yang Ji, Li’s colleague at the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing, noted that Chinese radio astronomers now have the opportunity to compete for international awards using cutting-edge telescopes they designed and built on their own.

“We have every reason to believe this is just the beginning for FAST to make groundbreaking discoveries in years to come,” Yang said.

The Marcel Grossmann Awards are seen as one of the most important accolades in physics. Named after the late Swiss mathematician who made major contributions to the development of general relativity alongside Albert Einstein, the awards recognise individuals and institutions for their outstanding work in the field of relativistic theory and experimentation.

Since 1985, the awards have been given out by the International Centre for Relativistic Astrophysics in Italy every three years. This year’s ceremony will be held in Rome next Tuesday.

Previous Chinese-born recipients of the Marcel Grossmann Individual Award include physicists Yang Chen-ning, Lee Tsung-Dao and mathematician Yau Shing-Tung.

Li Di was born into an astronomer’s family in 1972. His father Li Tipei pioneered high-energy astrophysics observation in China and proposed to build the country’s first X-ray telescope.

Chinese radio astronomer Li Di has been recognised for his ‘groundbreaking contributions’ during his work at China’s FAST telescope. Photo: Baidu
Li obtained his bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from Peking University in 1995. He went on to earn his PhD in radio astronomy from Cornell University in the US, during which time he worked extensively with the 350m-diameter Arecibo telescope – the largest of its kind at the time.

After a few years at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Li returned to China to join the FAST project, which would be completed four years later and surpass Arecibo to become the world’s largest, most sensitive single-dish radio telescope.

Since 2016, Li has led the FAST team to detect hundreds of new pulsars, which are extremely dense, fast-spinning remnants of stars that beam off radio waves from their magnetic poles like a cosmic lighthouse.

They have also used FAST to collect the largest observational data set of fast radio bursts – short-lived but intense radio pulses from deep space – and provided insights into their mysterious origins and diverse mechanisms.

Li shared the 2024 Marcel Grossmann Individual Award with theoretical astrophysicist Christopher Fryer from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, US. Fryer is recognised for his “pioneering and groundbreaking” work that helped “advance our understanding of supernovae, gamma-ray bursts and binary stellar evolution connecting them”.

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