An astrophysicist who studies exotic "zombie stars" has become the first woman to win Canada's top science prize.

Victoria Kaspi, a professor and Canada research chair at McGill University, is this year's winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The prize, which comes with a $1 million research grant, has been awarded annually since 1991 to recognize "sustained excellence and overall influence" of research conducted in Canada. It will be officially presented at a ceremony in Ottawa tonight by Governor General David Johnston, along with a number of other major awards for Canadian scientists, NSERC announced today.

Kaspi studies the extreme physics of neutron stars.

Those are dead stars, sometimes referred to as "zombie stars," that form when a massive star runs out of fuel and explodes in a supernova, but hasn't collapsed to the point of becoming a black hole.

"They have very exotic properties that allow us to test physical theories in ways that you just could never imagine doing here on Earth," Kaspi said.

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Kaspi discovered a rare magnetar whose strange behaviour garnered a lot of attention and debate after they were published in the journal Nature in 2013. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

For example, "if you take a teaspoon full of a neutron star, it weighs a billion tonnes. This is not like matter we're familiar with here on Earth. And yet it is a form of matter that can exist in the universe, and we're trying to understand the nature of that matter."

Much of her research has been on pulsars, a special kind of neutron star that spins at enormous speeds while beaming out radio waves that can be detected in rhythmic pulses on Earth.

Kaspi's research has had "major impacts in the field of astrophysics," NSERC says. Her achievements include:

  • Discovering the fastest-spinning pulsar known, one that rotates at 716 times per second.
  • Using observations of a binary pulsar — two pulsars orbiting each other — to do a new, extreme test of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.
  • Finding only the second magnetar in our galaxy — a rare, bizarre type of star with a colossal magnetic field. Observations of the magnetar's strange behaviour garnered a lot of attention and debate after they were published in the journal Nature in 2013.

'Thrilled, delighted, honoured'

Kaspi said she was aware that her university had nominated her for the Herzberg medal, but had forgotten about it by the time she received a phone call telling her she'd won.

"Oh, I was pretty surprised — thrilled, delighted, honoured," she said.

She's been fascinated by the night sky by childhood. "And, I hate to admit it, but I was a Star Trek fan," she added.

She did an undergraduate degree in physics at McGill. Then she began studying neutron stars at Princeton University under Joseph Taylor Jr., who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993, the year Kaspi completed her Ph.D.

She returned to McGill as a professor in 1999. Now, at age 48, she's tied for the youngest person to win the Herzberg Award.

Cosmic mystery

Kaspi hopes to use the grant money from the Herzberg prize to fund research into a mysterious new phenomenon called "fast radio bursts."

Those are unusual bursts of radio waves just a few thousandths of a second long that were first detected serendipitously by pulsar researchers just nine years ago.

"Something, somewhere in the cosmos, is producing a huge burst of radio waves, and we don't know what," she said. What's clear so far is that it's something very far away and very powerful.

Kaspi is hoping to put some of the prize money toward the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, a radio telescope being built in B.C. that may be ideal for studying fast radio bursts.

In addition to the Herzberg medal, NSERC is presenting a variety of other top prizes today, including the John C. Polanyi Award, which Kaspi won in 2010.

Barbara Sherwood Lollar

Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Toronto, is the winner of NSERC's $250,000 John C. Polanyi award for a recent outstanding advance in science or engineering. (NSERC)

This year's $250,000 award for a recent outstanding advance in science or engineering goes to Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a professor of earth sciences and Canada research chair at the University of Toronto.

NSERC cited Sherwood Lollar's recent discovery of water that has been trapped in rocks several kilometres underground for a billion years, in both South Africa and in Timmins, Ont. She has also discovered that reactions between the water and rock have produced chemicals that organisms can use as an energy source far from the sun.

"Not only are these waters habitable — some of them are inhabited," Sherwood Lollar added.

That expands the range of places where we could expect to find life on Earth, and also opens up the possibility that similar processes could make it possible for life to survive underground on Mars.