Montana State University

MSU astrophysicist appointed to NASA Advisory Council committee

May 2, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Neil Cornish (MSU photo by Erin Raley).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University astrophysicist who has been recognized for investigating the great questions of the universe has now been appointed to a committee that serves the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Neil Cornish will serve on the astrophysics committee of NASA's Advisory Council. He will attend his first meeting May 3 and 4 in Washington, D.C.

"I'm looking at it as an interesting experience," said Cornish who added that it's intimidating as well.

The other 17 members of the subcommittee are all older than his 38 years, Cornish said. Some are directing major observatories or large NASA missions. Others are professors at institutions like Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge. Cornish, an associate professor of physics, was nominated for the voluntary position by a program director at NASA headquarters. The subcommittee will meet four times a year.

"The Montana State University Department of Physics is extremely fortunate to have a young astrophysicist such as Neil Cornish, who has done important work in several areas connecting Einstein's theory of relativity with astronomy," said William Hiscock, department head.

Cornish likened the subcommittee to a boy whose mother gave him a dollar to spend at a candy store. The boy can't negotiate for more money, but he can decide if he should buy one large chocolate bar or a mixed bag of smaller candies. In the same way, the subcommittee can't expect more money, but it can recommend how NASA should allocate the money in its astrophysics division. The division deals with missions like the Hubble telescope, Constellation X, the Joint Dark Energy Mission and LISA, or the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

"All these missions are complementary," Cornish said. "They all give us different ways of looking at the universe and trying to probe some of the exotic phenomenon in the universe. I think it's some of the most exiting work in terms of exploring the universe and looking at really new horizons."

Cornish said he is concerned about the stability of space mission funding, as well as declining research and analysis money for universities. It's difficult to train the next generation of scientists when funding availability is like a roller coaster, Cornish said. A doctoral student might work several years on a project related to a space mission, only to have the mission cancelled and funding pulled. University projects funded by research and analysis money are tied to specific space missions.

Cornish's appointment is the latest in a string of opportunities and honors for the Australian-born scientist. Cornish is a member of the science team for LISA. He was part of the group that determined that the universe is 78 billion light years across, a finding that Discover magazine listed as one of the top 100 discoveries of 2004. Cornish also was part of an online American Museum of Natural History exhibit where he explained gravitational waves and two ways to measure them.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or