Astronomy Battle Royale: Anthony Piro wins Scialog award

By: Cynthia Hunt

Anthony Piro, Hale Scholar in Theoretical Astrophysics at the Carnegie Observatories, won one of seven 2016 Scialog awards after three days of discussion, collaboration, and competition at a unique conference in Tucson, Arizona.  The award was for a collaborative project that includes numerical theorist Daniel Kasen (University of California, Berkeley) and observer Nathan Smith (University of Arizona) who propose to combine theoretical predictions with observations to solve previously unexplained mysteries about supernovae and how massive stars end their lives.


Anthony Piro, Hale Scholar in Theoretical Astrophysics at the Carnegie Observatories


Scialog is a new approach to funding early career scientists, particularly in high-risk, high-reward projects, funded by The Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement (RCSA) and the Heising-Simons Foundation.  The program brings together leading early career scientists to tackle multidisciplinary challenges in their fields through a conference structured around discussion, which ultimately leads to a team-based competition for research grants .  


“It felt like we were participating in science reality TV show, where you try to convince people to join your teams and alliances were often formed and broken before deciding on your final projects,” said Piro.


Over the first two days, the 45 Scialog Fellows rotated between smaller groups and discussed a variety of topics in time domain astrophysics (astrophysical phenomena that changes on relatively short timescales ranging from days to months).  Discussions focused on a variety of different astrophysical explosions like supernovae, as well as hot topics such as gravitational waves, tidal disruption of stars by black holes, and fast radio bursts.  Such topics are especially timely right now, with a variety of astronomical teams around the world searching for explosive transients, such as the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae or ASAS-SN (partially lead by Ben Shappee, a Hubble Fellow and Carnegie-Princeton Fellow) and in the future with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST).  The discussion groups were put together using surveys combined with data science techniques to pair scientists with a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.  Senior scientists moderated these discussions, and also served as the jury at the final competition.  This included Juna Kollmeier, a senior theoretical astrophysicist at the Observatories, who also served as a keynote speaker.


At the end of the second day, it was up to the Fellows to form two to three person teams to write competitive proposals.  With a limit of two proposals per person, you had to choose your alliances and projects carefully and convince other Fellows to join your team.  After a long night of proposal writing, on the morning of the third day of the conference, each team presented their proposed science project to the panel of judges.


“The discussion-focused conference style and the competition at the end were a different way to bring scientists together. It forced us to apply our skills in a new way. The competitive aspect seemed unusual at first, but really helped motivate some creative thinking by the participants,” explained Piro.



The team’s winning supernova project makes use of many of the unique resources available at the Observatories. The main idea of the project is that many massive stars may have increased activity near the end of their lives, which may exhibit itself best by carefully studying the supernovae produced as the stars die.  Piro along with collaborator Kasen will work out the theory that predicts what signatures should be seen and how these signatures should be interpreted. The extreme sensitivity of Carnegie’s Magellan telescopes are perfect for finding the these signs of activity.  In addition, Piro’s team will rely on ASAS-SN (also associated with Carnegie as mentioned above) to find these supernovae as soon as possible after the explosion begins.  “One of the great changes at the Observatories in the last 10 years has been the growth of the theory group. This project really shows how problems can be tackled in unique ways when theorists and observers are able to work so closely together,” says Piro. The project will start in January.


Read more: “RCSA announces Scialog: Time Domain Astrophysics awards for 2016”


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