7 Jan 2013

Andromeda breakthrough for ‘Milky Way Kid’

Neil Ibata has helped produce a computer simulation which could revolutionise how we think about galaxy formation, and his work is featured on the cover of Nature. Not bad for a 15-year-old.

For 15-year-old Neil Ibata, work experience turned out to be rather more than making a few cups of tea, writes Channel 4 News Science Editor Tom Clarke. After two weeks at his dad’s office he became one of a team of astrophysicists being credited with a discovery of galactic significance.

Neil’s dad is research director at the Strasbourg astronomical observatory in France. He studies the Andromeda galaxy – our Milky Way’s nearest neighbour. When it came to analysing the latest observations of the galaxy, he turned to his teenager for technical assistance.

“I wanted to show him a concrete programming case that could be useful for me – and it was,” said Rodrigo Ibata.

Python programmer

Neil, who speaks German, English and Chinese and is a piano scholar, was at the research institute to learn the Python programming language. He is now one of the yougest people ever to have their work feature on the front cover of Nature, the science journal in which it was published last week.

“We calculated the distance and speed of these galaxies which allowed me to model them,” said Neil Ibata. “However, I think we can say I had some ‘beginner’s luck’.”

Neil Ibata’s simulation revealed that there are 27 dwarf galaxies orbiting Andromeda. But they don’t move at random, as theories predicted. Instead, they form a vast co-ordinated structure 1 million light years across.

Milky Way Kid

Because galaxies give rise to all the stuff in the universe – stars, planets and the like – how they form is of fundamental importance. And the new observation could turn those ideas on their heads.

“Almost half of the galaxies are in this very fine concrete structure which seems to challenge the theories of galaxy formation,” said Dr Nicholas Martin also at the Strasbourg astronomical observatory.

Neil – or the Milky Way Kid, as he is already being called – says he will “certainly” pursue a career in science, though he’s not sure if he will follow in his father’s star-gazing footsteps. Rodrigo Ibata told AFP he is proud of his son, “but not necessarily for this discovery.”