December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Margaux Calon explains how a schoolboy, at only 15-years-old, made a discovery that could shake the very foundations of astrophysics ...

Early 2013 played host to a story that proves it’s never too early to get involved in serious scientific research. Following an above-average work experience, Neil Ibata, a 15-year-old French schoolboy, co-authored an astrophysical paper that might debunk the ideas of Einstein and challenge most of the established theories about how galaxies are created. Not only that, the study ended up being published on the front page of Nature, making the 15-year-old the youngest ever contributor to the prestigious scientific journal.

Neil had been undertaking a work experience at the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg, where his father, Rodrigo Ibata, is a senior researcher. Rodrigo had asked his son to learn the programming language Python, so that he might help him study the evolution of galaxies around Andromeda, the closest major galaxy to our own Milky Way. But in analysing the latest observations of the galaxy – provided by the Pan-Andromeda Archaeological Survey and collected, from 2008 to 2011, using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope – Neil turned up some surprising results.

“I asked my son to program a model of … [the] dwarf galaxies’ movements, and, within the weekend, he discovered that the dwarf galaxies formed a rotating disk!’’ explained the proud father. Astronomers have long been aware of the presence of dwarf galaxies around bigger galaxies like Andromeda or the Milky Way, but Neil’s contribution revealed that most of the galaxies around Andromeda are organised in a huge rotating flat structure as opposed to moving randomly, as previously thought.

One reason this discovery is so impressive is that it questions the very foundation of astrophysics. According to the standard theory on the formation of galaxies, based on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, dark matter is formed by disorganized cosmic filaments. If we follow those principles, the observed linear organization of galaxies seems impossible. So, is it time to reject Einstein’s foundation of relativity? Professor Françoise Combes, an astrophysicist at the Observatoire de Paris, warned that might be premature: “Many more identical observations are necessary to prove that the standard theory can’t produce this kind of linear behaviour.”

Thanks to his observations, Neil (now known as the ‘Milky Way Kid’) was able to co-author the study in Nature along with his father and 14 other scientists from Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. Although Neil is one of the youngest contributors to Nature, the youngest person ever to have research published in a peer reviewed medical journal was an American called Emily Rosa. She was only 11 years old when her study into therapeutic touch, which she both conceived and performed, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998.

As well as incredibly impressive, these stories, more than anything, demonstrate that with a keen interest in science, you’re never too young to get involved in genuine scientific research.