Brian Metzger

2020 National Award Winner — Faculty

Brian Metzger

Current Position:
Professor of Physics

Columbia University

Astrophysics & Cosmology

Recognized for:

Settling a long-standing question about the origin of gold and other heavy elements in the universe. He predicted that gold, along with all the stable elements on the lower part of the periodic table, was created in a collision of two merging neutron stars called a “kilonova”. In 2017, the LIGO gravitational wave observatory recorded the first observed kilonova explosion and triggered a series of satellite measurements following this discovery that confirmed Metzger’s predictions. Indeed, the heaviest elements present in the universe, like gold, were created by such cataclysmic events.Metzger’s work has ushered in an exciting new era in astronomy that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Theoretical Astrophysics, Gravitational Wave Astrophysics, Multi-Messenger Astronomy, Fast Radio Bursts, Classical Novae

Previous Positions:

Lyman Spitzer Jr. Fellow, Princeton University
NASA Einstein Fellow, Princeton University
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of California at Berkeley
MA & PhD, University of California at Berkeley
BS (Highest Distinction), The University of Iowa

Research Summary:

Brian Metzger, PhD, has made remarkable theoretical predictions of numerous types of cataclysmic astronomical events. These predictions are far-reaching and have had an incredible impact in the fields of theoretical, gravitational wave, and observational astrophysics. His robust models predicting how an explosively-bright, radioactively-powered source of light progresses during a gravitational wave event, like the merger of two neutron stars settled a long-standing question about the origin of heaviest elements in the universe—as only light elements can be produced in supernova star explosions, and confirmed that these mergers are the universe’s factories where heavy elements, like gold, are made. This work has helped usher in a completely new era of astronomy, known as multi-messenger astronomy, that will take full advantage of gravitational wave data collected at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and will combine this information with satellite data to develop a clearer picture of the universe. Metzger’s work is further influencing many sub-fields of astrophysics, including studies on the origins of neutron-rich heavy elements and the physics of neutron star mergers.

Metzger’s contributions to the study of other transient (short-lived) astrophysical phenomena are equally influential. His theoretical model explaining the connection between observations of enigmatic and short-lived fast radio-burst signals and the formation of magnetized neutron stars electrified the astronomical community. His work on a new class of short-lived gamma-ray and radio transients led to the discovery that these signals are likely powered by a star being torn apart by a massive black hole, and has created a new sub-field devoted to the study of electromagnetic radiation flares resulting from a star being torn apart. In addition, his work investigating explosions at the surface of white dwarf stars overturned decades of relevant literature on the subject. It is rare in astronomy that theoretical predictions are shown to so closely match observation, and Metzger has done this not just once, but many times over.

What an incredible honor to be recognized by this Award, which uniquely elevates the work of young scientists. It’s an incredible realization that the precious metals in my wedding band were likely forged in the vicinity of a black hole.

Key Publications:

K.-L. Li, B. D. Metzger, L. Chomiuk, et al. A nova outburst powered by shocks. Nature Astronomy, 2017.

B. D. Metzger , R. Fernandez. Red or Blue? A Kilonova Imprint of the Delay until Black Hole Formation Following a Neutron Star Merger. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2014.

D. M. Siegel, B. D. Metzger. Three-Dimensional General-Relativistic Magnetohydrodynamic Simulations of Remnant Accretion Disks from Neutron Star Mergers: outflows and r-Process Nucleosynthesis.Physical Review Letters , 2017.

B. Margalit, B. Metzger. Constraining the Maximum Mass of Neutron Stars from Multi-Messenger Observations of GW170817.The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 2017.

Other Honors:

2019Simons Fellow in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics
2019Salpeter Honorary Lecturer, Cornell
2019Bruno Rossi Prize, American Astronomical Society
2019Blavatnik National Awards Finalist, Blavatnik Family Foundation
2019New Horizons Breakthrough Prize in Physics
2018Blavatnik National Awards Finalist, Blavatnik Family Foundation
2018Charles and Thomas Lauritsen Honorary Lecture, Caltech
2014Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship
2009Dissertation Prize, High Energy Astrophysics Division of American Astronomical Society
2009Mary Elizabeth Uhl Prize, Department of Astronomy, UC Berkeley


In the Media:

Quanta Magazine With a Second Repeating Radio Burst, Astronomers Close in on Explanation

Quanta Magazine Surprise Discovery Points to the Source of Fast Radio Bursts

The Economist A Lot of the Periodic Table is the Result of Neuton Stars Colliding

Science Magazine Gravitational Waves Reveal Lightest Black Hole Observed

New York Times LIGO Detects Fierce Collision of Neutron Stars for the First Time

Washington Post Gravitational Waves? Neutron Stars? Kilonovas? What the new physics announcement means.

Wall Street Journal An Ancient Stellar Collision Gives a Boost to the Work “Kilonova”

Sky & Telescope Shock Waves Light Up Stellar Explosions