For more than two years, Cherry Ng had been writing an algorithm that would allow her team to process the 13 terabytes of data recorded every second by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope in British Columbia, Canada. That’s about the data rate of the entire North American cellphone network. After a late Friday night debugging the code in the winter of 2018, Ng woke up Saturday morning and continued to work, still in bed, when she noticed the algorithm had performed exactly as expected on a validation test. She couldn’t believe it, she says. “I immediately sent the screenshot to my supervisor, to which he replied, ‘Oh, wow, that’s beautiful!’ ”
Before CHIME, discoveries of fast radio bursts (FRBs) — powerful but mysterious signals from faraway galaxies — were rare. Ng was previously part of a team at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, that found just four bursts in 2013. Now, using Ng’s algorithm, CHIME has spotted over 1,000 FRBs. It’s a feat Ng calls a “pleasant surprise,” since no one knew if it would work. CHIME looks for FRBs at lower frequencies than ever before — a gamble that paid off.
Now a project scientist at the University of Toronto, Ng says developing that algorithm is still the work that she’s most proud of. Yet, her role with the project is far from over. Through ongoing data analysis, Ng hopes to determine exactly what FRBs are. But at just 35 years old, she’s already made her mark on the field. During her Ph.D., Ng developed a different algorithm that discovered 60 rapidly spinning neutron stars, known as pulsars, which are so dense that they contain roughly the mass of our Sun in an object the size of New York City, she says. That makes pulsars the closest things to a black hole that astronomers can study; plus, they are easier to spot. Ng’s newfound pulsars made up 2.5 percent of the total known population at the time.
Although Ng is early in her career, others in her field have taken notice. “Her publications in the pulsar and fast radio burst literature are always so clearly written and something that I recommend to my students to read as an example of a great paper,” says Duncan Lorimer, a West Virginia University astronomer who, with his colleagues, discovered the first FRB in 2007.
Ng’s work now extends beyond pulsars and FRBs. In partnership with the Breakthrough Listen Project at the Berkeley SETI Research Center, she will hunt for radio evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. With such a vast universe to search, Ng thinks there’s a long way to go before such a signal is found. “But if we don’t start, we won’t find it,” she says.
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