Known for discovering evidence of an ancient Milky Way explosion and an avid dark matter hunter, Tracy Slatyer has become a recipient of the New Horizons Price in Physics award with a prize money of a whopping $100,000.
Slatyer, an MIT physicist originally from Australia, is most notable as a co-discoverer of the "Fermi Bubbles." While searching for signs of the fingerprint of dark matter in the gamma rays originating from the middle of the Milky Way, she and her colleagues discovered structures that were never before seen stretching both above and below the galactic disk - aftershocks of a black hole that broke out millions of years ago. But Slatyer is still seeking dark matter, and at the galactic center has found promising (though still tentative) traces of the material.
The New Horizons prize, given annually by the Innovation Prize Foundation, goes to early career researchers such as Slatyer, who received her Ph.D. in 2010 and was employed at MIT in 2013. New Horizons awards are lower than the $3 million Breakthrough hands out every year, usually to older and more well-established scholars.
Slatyer was the only individual recipient of the 2021 New Horizons Prize in Physics, with two other prizes going to four-member research teams each. A collective of tech billionaires pledged the prize money, including Jack Ma, Pony Ma, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki, Sergey Brin, Yuri Milner and Julia Milner.
The breakthrough has granted Slatyer the prize for her significant contributions to particle astrophysics, from dark matter models to the "Fermi Bubbles" discovery.
Slatyer spends a lot of her time developing dark matter models - precisely finding out how the particles might behave and the ramifications of those particular possibilities, and spending the rest of her time tracking them down.
"It was a complete surprise," Slatyer said in an interview. "The prize wasn't even on my radar."
The universe is approximately 84% dark matter, radiating no light but exerts a gravitational force. Scientists have no idea what that dark matter is or its origins -- they can only rely on indirect evidence of dark matter through its gravitational effects on luminous matter.
Galaxy dynamics and formations, the conduct of light through huge regions of space, and the universe itself all suggest the presence of something out there that we cannot clearly observe - all of it dispersed in "halos" surrounding massive galaxies like the Milky Way.
Right now, one of the main targets of physics is the direct discovery of dark matter. This is a huge part of what Slatyer's been trying to do with her career.