Shapiro wins 2017 Bethe Prize

Siv Schwink

Illinois Professor of Physics and of Astronomy Stuart Shapiro
Illinois Professor of Physics and of Astronomy Stuart Shapiro
University of Illinois Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stuart Shapiro has been selected for the 2017 Hans A. Bethe Prize of the American Physical Society (APS). The Bethe Prize is conferred annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to theory, experiment, or observation in astrophysics, nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, or closely related fields.

The citation reads, “For seminal and sustained contributions to understanding physical processes in compact object astrophysics, and advancing numerical relativity.”

Working at the intersection of theoretical astrophysics and numerical relativity, Shapiro has made significant contributions to our theoretical understanding of several long-standing, fundamental problems in astrophysics and general relativity. His broad research interests include the physics of black holes and neutron stars, gravitational collapse, the generation of gravitational waves, relativistic hydrodynamics and magnetohydrodynamics, and the dynamics of large N-body dynamical systems. Using simulations and visualizations generated on supercomputers, Shapiro’s group has shed light on accretion onto compact objects, binary black hole and neutron star inspiral and coalescence, the formation of black holes,  and neutrino and dark matter astrophysics.

Shapiro is perhaps most noted for his ground-breaking simulations on the emitted radiation spectrum from gas accreting onto black holes and neutron stars; the disruption and consumption of stars in star clusters containing a central supermassive black hole; the formation of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy or quasar from the collapse of a relativistic collisionless gas or supermassive star;  and gravitational waves and electromagnetic signals from merging compact binaries.

Long interested in gravitational wave generation, Shapiro and his group provided some of the foundational theoretical work that contributed to the eventual detection and interpretation of gravitational waves by LIGO.

Shapiro is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Institute of Physics in the U.K. He is a recipient of numerous honors, including a first prize in the IBM Supercomputing Competition (1991), the Forefronts of Large-Scale Computation Award (1990), the IBM Supercomputing Competition Award (1990), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1989-90), an Association of American Publishers Award (1984), and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (1979).

Shapiro received his bachelor’s degrees in astronomy from Harvard in 1969 and his master’s and doctoral degrees in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University in 1971 and 1973 respectively. He served on the astronomy and physics faculty at Cornell University from 1973 to1995, before joining the faculty in Physics and Astronomy at Illinois as a full professor in 1996.

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Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working in dark matter research have gotten together and planned a celebration of Dark Matter Day (October 31), just a few days early. A free screening of the visually stunning documentary, Seeing the Beginning of Time, will take place at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) on October 24, 2017, at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A session with a panel of experts. This event is open to all, though seating is limited.

Seeing the Beginning of Time is a 50-minute visually stunning journey through deep space and time, co-produced by the NCSA, and Thomas Lucas Productions. The trailer is viewable on YouTube at

The American Chemical Society (ACS), through its Division of History of Chemistry, has an award that acknowledges these greatest of strides: the Chemical Breakthrough Awards are presented annually in recognition of “seminal chemistry publications, books, and patents that have been revolutionary in concept, broad in scope, and long-term in impact.” These awards are made to the department where the breakthrough occurred, not to the individual scientists or inventors.

This year, the ACS honored the discovery of “J-coupling” (also known as spin-spin coupling) in liquids, a breakthrough that enabled scientists to use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to identify atoms that are joined by a chemical bond and so to determine the structure of molecules.

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Today’s historic joint announcement by the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Europe-based Virgo detector of the first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars is doubly noteworthy. It’s also the first cosmic event observed in both gravitational waves and light—some 70 ground- and space-based observatories observed the colliding neutron stars. This is arguably the biggest moment to date in “multi-messenger astronomy.”

In a press release issued by LIGO and Virgo collaborations, National Science Foundation Director France A. Córdova comments, “It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe. This discovery realizes a long-standing goal many of us have had, that is, to simultaneously observe rare cosmic events using both traditional as well as gravitational-wave observatories. Only through NSF’s four-decade investment in gravitational-wave observatories, coupled with telescopes that observe from radio to gamma-ray wavelengths, are we able to expand our opportunities to detect new cosmic phenomena and piece together a fresh narrative of the physics of stars in their death throes.”

Well before the development of today’s innovative technologies supporting this simultaneous gravitational-wave and optical observation, early research in numerical relativity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign helped to lay the theoretical foundation for it. In fact, many features of the discovery had been predicted in the early computational simulations of Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stuart Shapiro and his group.

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A team of scientists using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), the primary observing tool of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), was among the first to observe the fiery aftermath of a recently detected burst of gravitational waves, recording images of the first confirmed explosion from two colliding neutron stars ever seen by astronomers.

Scientists on the DES joined forces with a team of astronomers based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) for this effort, working with observatories around the world to bolster the original data from DECam. Images taken with DECam captured the flaring-up and fading over time of a kilonova – an explosion similar to a supernova, but on a smaller scale – that occurs when collapsed stars (called neutron stars) crash into each other, creating heavy radioactive elements.

Two scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are members of the DES collaboration, Professors Joaquin Vieira of the Departments of Astronomy and of Physics and Felipe Menanteau of the Department