WISW Professor Ma Chung-pei

Ma Chung-pei is a Taiwanese American cosmologist and astrophysicist. She is a professor of Astronomy and Physics at UCLA, Berkeley.

Ma was born in Taiwan, and began playing the violin at age four. In 1983, at sixteen years old, she won the National Taiwan Violin Competition. In 1987 she received a bachelor of science degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, in 1993, she also earned her PhD in physics. Her studies concentrated on theoretical cosmology and particle physics. During her time at MIT, Ma continued to study violin at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.

Ma moved from Boston to Pasadena in 1993 to take a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, a position she held until 1996. In 1996 she moved to Philadelphia to take a position as an associate and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. By 2001 she had won the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching.

Ma then moved to Berkeley to become a professor of Astronomy. There, her research focused on the properties of dark matter and dark energy, gravitational lensing, galaxy formation and evolution, the cosmic microwave background, supermassive black holes, and the large scale structure of the universe. In 2011 her research team discovered the largest known black holes in the universe. She was also an editor in cosmology for The Astrophysical Journal.

The supermassive black hole Ma and her team discovered was at the center of a massive elliptical galaxy called NGC 1600. It’s located in a small grouping of 20 or so galaxies. What makes this black hole remarkable is that it is 10 times more massive than predicted for its galaxy’s mass. One theory is that this black hole was actually two black holes which merged back when galaxies collided more frequently. The gravitational interaction of the two black holes hurled falling stars out the binary’s core. Ma and her team estimated that there were around 40 billion suns worth of stars hurled out of the core of this binary galaxy. That is the equivalent of the entire disk of the Milky Way. These black holes merged together and became supermassive by virtue of the gasses funneled to the core during the galaxy collision. Now it is considered a sleeping giant.

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