Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Past Winner
2003 NSERC Award of Excellence

Richard Bond

Director, Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA)

University of Toronto


Richard Bond
Richard Bond

In his Letters to a Young Poet, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised that above all the writer must love the questions themselves. Rilke could as well have been talking to cosmologists – those stargazers who study the origins, evolution and destiny of the universe. Because for much of the past century the bulk of what these scientists have known with any degree of certainty ended in a dark, distant, cosmic question mark.

"What's the universe made of? How did structure in the universe begin, how did it evolve and what is the fate of the universe? These are the deepest questions in cosmology," says Dr. Richard (Dick) Bond, one of three finalists for the 2005 NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal.

And in the past 20 years he's, remarkably, helped answer all of them – a thinker at the forefront of what's already seen as a golden age in cosmology, and a Godfather of Canada's now vibrant internationally recognized theoretical cosmology community.

When in 1985 Dr. Bond returned to his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Toronto – leaving a plum posting at prestigious Stanford University – to help found the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), the basic map of the universe – size, shape, age – was largely unknown.

"When I entered the subject in the early 1980s, I thought it was a bit flaky because it wasn't very precise. What has happened throughout my career is that we've seen it through to this remarkably high precision field. We're going right out to the edge of the universe and determining things to an enormous degree of accuracy," says Dr. Bond.

Indeed, Dr. Bond's research has helped write the modern story of "neogenesis" through a deft combination of theoretical and experimental work. His research has explored the origin of large-scale structure in the universe, based in part on extrapolating from the behaviour of a variety of critical components including very massive objects (including supernovae and black holes) and neutrinos.

Through this exploring, Dr. Bond arrived at the work for which he's best known, listening in on the universe's earliest "baby cries" – contained in the cosmic background radiation (CBR) – as a way of understanding the present by knowing our origins. The CBR is an energy fossil of the ultra-early universe. It is the oldest light energy that any telescope can detect, representing the photon afterglow the Big Bang, recorded about 400,000 years after "the beginning."

In the 1980s, Dr. Bond and Cambridge University cosmologist Dr. George Efstathiou theorized and developed calculations to demonstrate that minute fluctuations (tiny sound waves revealed when light energy decoupled from matter) in the CBR could provide key clues to the fundamental cosmological parameters of shape, size, age and composition.

At the time, there were many who doubted it would ever be possible to record these 14-billion-year-old cosmic birthing sounds. But in 2000, the Boomerang Mission changed naysayers into CBR enthusiasts. Capping off a decade of increasingly technically sophisticated attempts, the 10-day Boomerang balloon experiment flown over Antarctica, of which Dr. Bond was the lead theoretician, captured an exquisite acoustic "snap shot" of our universe's first light.

The information gained from Boomerang changed the map of the universe. And as suits the discipline, it opened as many questions as it solved. Boomerang showed that we live in a flat universe and one that is expanding. But most striking of all is the probable cause of this expansion – dark energy, or what Einstein called the cosmological constant before he retracted the notion, calling it his greatest blunder.

"But this dark energy, or cosmological constant, seems to be there," says Dr. Bond, "And it's determining the fate of the universe."

This is because this unknown dark energy acts as a repulsive force, counteracting and stronger than gravity, pushing the universe out into nothingness.

According to Boomerang's data, this dark energy accounts for about 70 per cent of the universe's mass/energy, while 25 per cent is dark matter. Humans and all we see – planets, stars, nebulae – are cosmic bit players: Only about five per cent of the universe is baryonic – the stuff of neutrons, protons and electrons from which we're made.

Dr. Bond says that much of his current research involves thinking about ways to determine the nature of dark energy. And suiting someone who goes after the big questions, he is looking to the CBR for hints of not just other kinds of matter/energy, but other kinds of space.

"What we'd most like to do is find a signature of extra dimensions in the data," says Dr. Bond. "Much of the theorizing now in cosmology involves the impact of extra dimensions, as predicted in string theory, on cosmology. So what we'd like to do is say here in the CBR is something that looks like this because the universe passed from, say, 10 dimensions to four."

Accomplishments

Dr. Bond is Canada's pre-eminent cosmology community builder. Whether it's batting around ideas in CITA's busy coffee room at the University of Toronto, or as the chair of the NASA committee to review detectors on the 2007 Planck-Surveyor spacecraft, Dr. Bond is advancing the cause of Canadian cosmology.

Cosmology is an intensely international science, relying on expensive space-based experiments that often involve extensive international technical and scientific cooperation. Within this international context, Dr. Bond has worked for more than two decades to carve out a first-rate place for Canadian science and Canadians. As Director of CITA since 1996, he has promoted the organization's mandate for a pan-Canadian approach to world-class science, attracting postdoctoral students from across Canada and the world. This year marks a community-building high-point for this cosmological shining star as, along with the CITA Directorship, he recently took on the mantle of Director of Cosmology and Gravity Program, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR).

Dr. Bond is well read – including by others. He's Canada's most highly cited cosmologist, with more than 76 citations per paper between 1981 and 1997. These scientific citations are a key indication of the importance of his research as a platform from which others can build. His work also has broad public appeal. The Boomerang project was judged one of the top 10 science stories of 2000 and 2001 by Science magazine.

Dr. Bond is an inspirational and affable mentor and teacher who strives to bring out the best in his students and colleagues. In his role as a member and Director of CITA he has helped nurture more than 100 postdoctoral fellows, two-thirds of whom now have permanent positions in major universities and research labs around the world.

Background

J. Richard Bond was born in Toronto in 1950 and received his B.Sc. in mathematics and physics from the University of Toronto in 1973. He attended graduate school at Caltech, starting in 1974-75 with the honour of receiving the Richard P. Feynman Fellowship. Working with his thesis advisor, Nobel Laureate Dr. W.A. Fowler, he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1979. From 1981 to 1987 he was an assistant then associate professor of physics at Stanford University. In 1985, he returned to Toronto as a founding member of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), of which he is currently serving his second five-year term as Director until 2006. In 2000, Dr. Bond was made a University Professor of the University of Toronto.

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