Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Mapping the Universe November 27, 2007 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 11/27/07

From Australia to Cambridge to Bozeman, MSU's Neil Cornish opens up new worlds

(Photo: Stephen Hunts)

Space may be a mystery, but it has never been a stranger to a Montana State University astrophysicist who pursues the big secrets of the universe.

Neil Cornish, an associate professor of physics who works on some of the most significant research involving space, grew up in the Australian bush where space was as abundant as the stars above the family farm. Around him were 2,000 acres that he shared with his parents, two sisters, merino sheep, parrots, wallabies, kangaroos, side-necked turtles, emus, lizards and poisonous snakes. Above were the night skies that helped inspire him to become a detective of black holes, supernovas and gravitational waves.

"We had incredible views of the stars," Cornish said.

Outback boy

His parents, the Australian night sky and resolving the ever-present mechanical problems on the farm, provided the mixture that probably set Cornish on his life's course. Astronomy was an early interest.

"It's been something pretty important as long as I can remember," Cornish said.

Cornish's parents, now divorced, were academics in England when they decided to raise sheep in the foothills of the Grampian Mountains in southeast Australia. Neil's father, an entomologist, had always wanted to farm. Jean Cornish, in her 20s then with a doctorate in pharmaceutics, was up for an adventure. With their oldest daughter and 6-month-old Neil, they moved to Australia. Their house sat at the end of a mile-long lane and about 15 miles from the closest town.

Cornish, 12, with his possum, Ginny. Photo courtesy of Neil Cornish.
Cornish, 12, with his possum, Ginny. Photo courtesy of Neil Cornish.

"We went to Australia thinking we may or may not have stayed," said Jean, a university professor in Australia who is now a research fellow at MSU. "But we just fell in love with it. It was tremendously welcoming, and we never looked back."

She saw Cornish's early interest in the universe, but stargazing was a hobby he shared with the rest of the family. She remembers lying outside on a wooden bench, looking up at the sky. She recalls waking her son to watch Halley's comet.

When Neil lived on the farm, he rode horses, helped with lambing, fixed a lot of fences, assisted sheep shearers, and worked construction. He trapped rabbits to earn money for a motorbike. After a baby possum ran up his pant leg and settled on his head, he kept it as a pet.

"He was very much a bush boy," Jean said.

As Neil grew, Jean and her husband realized he was good in math, computers and sciences and needed something more challenging than the local school. So when he was 15 or 16 years old, they sent him to a boarding school in Melbourne, four hours away from the farm. He took his first calculus class as an 11th grader and found it to be refreshingly logical. The door to physics and astrophysics had opened.

"All of a sudden, I didn't have to memorize everything," Cornish explained. "Everything became inter-related and it all made sense. One key unlocked all these doors. Physics was really easy for me. I could derive things."

"I expected Neil to end up with a career in science-physics, maths, computers-something along that line," Jean said. "When he got to the university, it was clear he was going places, but I did not know where."

That realization and his academic standing led Cornish to take advanced physics courses at the University of Melbourne. Cornish earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne, then received his doctorate at Toronto. He went on to do postdoctoral research at the University of Cambridge, where he spent two years in a group with Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease. Cornish did more postdoctoral work at Princeton University and then joined the MSU faculty in 1999.

"He was seduced by Bozeman," said Jean, who had the same reaction when she came to visit. "I was surprised. Montana seemed like a funny place to be doing physics. A place like Bozeman seemed even funnier. But I later found out they had a very good physics department here."

Mapping the universe

(Photo: Stephen Hunts)

Along the way, Cornish met his future wife, Jamie, while she was earning her doctorate in education at Queens College of the University of Cambridge. After meeting at a party, he entertained her with tales of the bush.

He told her of grabbing emus while riding by on his dirt bike, Jamie Cornish related. He talked of waking to gunshots, knowing someone in his family had shot something he'd have to skin for supper. He explained how hard it was to sleep during koala-grunting season when males would spend all night calling to prospective mates.

"I had only been in England two weeks. I was like, 'Where are you from?'" said Jamie, who could have regaled him with her own stories as the globe-trotting daughter of an international lawyer and former Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.

It's better to press, then step back. Your brain can process without you consciously thinking about it. Most of the problems I solve have been when I wasn't thinking about it.
--Neil Cornish

Jamie and Neil eventually started dating, then carried on a long-distance relationship until marrying in February 2001. Since coming to MSU, Cornish became a member of the team that determined that the universe is at least 78 billion light years across, the 82nd most significant science story of 2004, according to Discover magazine. Cornish now serves on a national committee advising the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on astrophysics. He is one of the leading scientists for NASA's Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission. Cornish led the effort earlier this year to have the MSU Gravitational Wave Astronomy Group accepted as the 42nd member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. The collaboration involves 500 researchers from around the world and allows MSU researchers to use information from five observatories.

"It's very prestigious," MSU President Geoff Gamble said of MSU's selection. "To have one of our faculty members, and particularly Neil Cornish, in the group, really speaks to the quality that MSU has among its faculty and the great work that Neil is doing."

Mind at work

"Neil's a great guy," said Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies and Regents Professor of Paleontology. Horner team-teaches a class for University Honors students with Cornish and Michael Miles, director of MSU's University Honors Program. The course, called "Origins," explores the origins of the earth, universe, humanities and religious thought.

"We have a whole lot of fun teaching Origins," Horner added. "Neil's a terrific thinker, and the students really like him."

Bill Hiscock, physics professor and head of the MSU Department of Physics, said Cornish is one of the most outstanding young scientists worldwide working on Einstein's theory of general relativity today.

"MSU has a long history of outstanding research in this area, which Neil is now continuing and strengthening," Hiscock said. "Relativity and gravitational wave astronomy attract many students to the MSU physics department's programs, and Neil does an excellent job of involving and mentoring students in his research program."

Cornish said he often comes up with his ideas or solutions to astrophysics problems while walking to and from work or hiking in the woods around Bozeman. (When looking for a house, he told his real estate agent that he wanted to live within one mile of Montana Hall so he could walk to his office in the Engineering/Physical Sciences Building. He pulled out a map of Bozeman, stuck the tip of a compass into Montana Hall and drew a circle to emphasize the point.)

"It's better to press, then step back," Cornish said. "Your brain can process without you consciously thinking about it. Most of the problems I solve have been when I wasn't thinking about it."

These days, Cornish has a variety of diversions besides walking. He cooks for the family, regularly making gourmet meals ranging from Middle Eastern cuisine to Asian. "A complete wine nut," he can talk for hours about his favorite wines. He's a Trekkie who dresses up like Captain Kirk or Han Solo at Halloween while Jamie dresses up like Princess Leia. Cornish and Jamie have two children under age 3, Ellie and James.

The family enjoys living a few blocks from Jean, and Cornish enjoys seeing the growing bond between grandmother and grandchildren. The Cornishes have a dog named Bondi and a cat named Loki. They try to return to Australia every couple of years to visit the rest of Neil's family.

Bozeman is a long way from Australia, Princeton and Cambridge, but it suits him, Cornish said. Besides allowing him to hike, it offers him the chance to attend a variety of lectures and learn from scientists in other fields.

Jamie -- who has worked for such companies as "Disney" and "Discover" magazines, and as a former consultant for "Sesame Street" and "Nickelodeon" magazines -- is now director of marketing and public programs at the Museum of the Rockies -- said Bozeman is an intellectually rich town.

"It's incredible," Jamie said about living in Bozeman. "Half our friends are so jealous. Half think we are insane."