15 Year old makes galactic breakthrough

It somehow seems wonderfully appropriate to bring you this story on Stephen Hawking’s birthday.

15-year-old Neil Ibata took some time off from school to get a bit of work experience under his (asteroid) belt and in the blink of a cosmological eye, helped transform the understanding of galactic behaviour and had his work featured on the front cover of scientific bible, Nature.

He had a little bit of a head start – there’s no denying that. Neil’s father, Rodrigo, is the research director at the Strasbourg astronomical observatory where Neil stepped up for his first taste of the infinitely big time. Rodrigo studies the Andromeda galaxy - our Milky Way's nearest neighbour, and his team had embarked on a project concerning the dwarf galaxies surrounding Andromeda. What they really needed though was a computer program to chart the position and rotation speed of the satellite galaxies to see how they behave over simulated time. And so Rodrigo turned to his son.

The results were nothing short of stellar. They demonstrated that the satellite galaxies orbit Andromeda in concert and align in a vast, thin disk. The simulation revealed that there are 27 dwarf galaxies orbiting Andromeda, but far from moving at random as most theories had predicted, they form a giant, systematic structure 1 million light years across.

“I was expecting the complete opposite,” Rodrigo Ibata told the news agency AFP. As indeed were most of the cosmological community which is why the research team with their 15 year old programming whizz particle accelerated straight onto Nature’s front page. The results throw existing assumptions about galaxy formation into chaos just as chaos disappears from their behaviour, and it will be sending astrophysicists back to the drawing board for a new unifying theory of galactic structure.

Neil, who speaks German, English and Chinese, is a piano scholar and a high flying student at his school, was at the research institute to learn the Python programming language.

"We calculated the distance and speed of these galaxies which allowed me to model them," he said. "However, I think we can say I had some 'beginner's luck'."

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