Saturn in orbit
Monday, June 10, 2024

Getting to know the Honorary Doctorate from the Faculty of Science: Dr. Scott Tremaine

By Sharon McFarlane 

Senior Advancement Communications Officer 

Dr. Scott Tremaine is wearing an olive suit with a red tie. A black board with equations is in the background.

Dr. Scott Tremaine is a distinguished Canadian astrophysicist, renowned for his pioneering studies showing that supermassive black holes reside at the centres of galaxies, his work on Saturn’s rings, and his investigations of the dynamics of galaxies.  Dr. Tremaine has held influential positions throughout his five-decade career. He served as the founding director of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and later as the chair of Astrophysics at Princeton University. His textbook, Galactic Dynamics, continues to be a cornerstone of the understanding of galactic behaviour and dynamics for students and professionals alike. Dr. Tremaine's significant contributions to the field have been recognized with fellowships in the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Society of London, and the American Astronomical Society. His work has not only advanced scientific knowledge but also inspired a generation of astrophysicists. Dr. Tremaine is currently Professor Emeritus in the Institute for Advanced Study's School of Natural Sciences. He has been with IAS since 2007.

Q: What initially sparked your interest in this field, and how has your passion evolved?

A: I wasn’t the type of kid who wanted to be an astronaut or astronomer from a young age. I didn’t fall in love with astrophysics until graduate school. When I was a student, pulsars (rapidly rotating, super-dense stars) and quasars (the bright, fiery centres of active galaxies) had just been discovered a few years before, and so I thought that astrophysics would be an exciting field to study.  Fortunately, I had excellent mentors at university and I was lucky enough to be studying subject areas that were aligned with several of NASA’s flagship space missions.

Q: What are some recent discoveries or advancements in our understanding of black holes and their influence on surrounding celestial bodies that have particularly intrigued you?

A: In the early part of my career, black holes only existed as a theoretical construct. Research into quasars led us to believe that black holes were the engines that powered them, and for this and other reasons, we gradually became convinced that black holes were at the centres of most galaxies.  Of course, with the spectacular images from UWaterloo’s Dr. Avery Broderick and the Event Horizon Telescope team, we finally saw the black holes that we were certain had to be there.  And other telescopes, like the James Webb Space Telescope, are telling us the history of black holes and galaxy formation within our universe.

Q: What do you see as the unique strengths or opportunities within Canada’s astrophysics community, and how do you envision its future development?

A: Canada has a long and strong tradition of cutting-edge research. We can’t lead the big expensive projects like the flagship telescopes of NASA or the European Space Agency, so we tend to focus on international partnerships or on smaller projects that can be more easily funded with a limited budget.  For example, a colleague of mine, Roberto Abraham from the University of Toronto has a small telescope, Dragonfly, which produces unique results on the properties of the faintest galaxies.  

Q: You have an asteroid named after you! How do you feel about Asteroid (3806) Tremaine?

A: That’s a fun honour. I just hope it stays in orbit and doesn’t crash into the Earth millions of years from now, ending civilization!

Q: The field of exoplanetary science has seen tremendous growth in recent years. What mysteries do you hope future missions like the James Webb Space Telescope will help to address?

A: Patience is one of the most important values to have as an astrophysicist. We waited two decades for the data from the James Webb Space Telescope, and they are spectacular. With Webb and other new telescopes in the coming decades, we’ll be able to study the atmospheres of these distant planets and perhaps determine whether their surfaces are capable of supporting life as we know it.

Q: As a mentor to aspiring astrophysicists, what advice would you offer to students or early-career researchers looking to make an impact?

A: Rather than focusing on a narrow area of research, it’s important to keep your eyes open for exciting opportunities in other areas that might open up at your university or research institute. It’s also important to be honest about what your skills are and how well they match with a particular area of study. And pay a lot of attention to choosing your mentors, since having a strong mentor can be the key to success.

I think every student in astrophysics needs to have a plan B in case they can’t get a good job in the field. Fortunately, students trained in astrophysics develop a wide variety of skills that are in high demand in fields like data science or the financial industry.  

Q: Congratulations on your retirement. What does retirement look like for you?

A: Well, I’m still in the office five days a week and I help to supervise several undergraduate and graduate students. I’ll keep up with the research for as long as I can. But I do hope to spend more time outside, and to do more leisure travel … on this planet.