Dr. Jaymie Matthews, star-cracker

Professor Jaymie Matthews teaches at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Jaymie Matthews

Professor Jaymie Matthews teaches at the University of British Columbia. His passion for astronomy led him to obtain a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Western Ontario in 1987. As principal investigator of the MOST project, he divides his time between the mission of this new Canadian space exploration satellite, his students, and a number of committees. Matthews is convinced that Canada's strength lies in its ability to design innovative, low-cost microsatellites. His interest in astronomy is stronger than ever after the MOST findings.

Matthews is eloquent when it comes to finding metaphors to illustrate the phenomena he studies. He once compared the rapid surface vibrations of a star to body language. Stars, other than the Sun, are far away, and astronomers had to find a way to deal with distance. So Matthews and his colleagues have adapted the way geophysicists use seismic waves to explore Earth's structure. Applied to the study of stars, they call this new science stellar seismology or asteroseismology.

Matthews says, "We can't put seismographs on the surface of the Sun or other stars, but we can see subtle effects of the waves as they cause the stellar surface to oscillate—they literally ring like gaseous bells. The frequencies of the oscillations give us direct information on the gas through which the sound waves travel. We can use measurements of the composition of the star's core as a clock to register its age."

From student to teacher

Jaymie Matthews wanted to be an astronomer for as long as he can remember. "The stars of the night sky are one of my earliest and most enduring memories of growing up on the outskirts of the small town of Chatham, Ontario. When I went to university, I was lucky enough to work on some genuine research projects and I caught the star bug."

"When I look into my students' eyes, I often see the same sense of wonder that I had at that time. (And the same dropping eyelids from all-nighters of homework or observing at the campus telescope!). As a student, I was privileged to work with top scientists, to listen to Nobel Prize laureates, and to have access to facilities that would make an amateur astronomer envious. One of the pleasures of being a university professor is that I get to return the favour to a new generation of astronomers."

The supernova discovered in 1987 is the bright spot in the centre of the picture.

The supernova discovered in 1987 is the bright spot in the centre of the picture.
(Photo: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA, STScI, NASA, ESA))

He recounts this story. "In 1987, I found myself at a remote observatory in Chile, studying a new class of pulsating stars. One night, the light from the brightest supernova in over three centuries finally came to Earth after travelling about 160,000 light years from another galaxy. An observer on a nearby mountain peak recognized it first. So that makes me the Canadian Who *Didn't* Discover the Supernova of the Century. In the media frenzy that followed this discovery, I explained to reporters that the elements in our bodies were produced in similar supernova explosions. Even the atoms in Elvis Presley's brain came from a supernova, I joked. Months later, during the first joint meeting of the Canadian and American Astronomical Societies in Vancouver, an issue of Discover Magazine appeared with an article about the supernova, using a quotation from me as the headline: 'Exploding Star Contains Atoms from Elvis Presley's Brain – Scientists Confirm that the King of Rock 'n' Roll Lived 160,000 Years Ago in Another Galaxy!' Amazingly enough, I still got a job in astronomy."

To learn more about MOST's discoveries, click here.