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Interview with Professor Myunshin Im, recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award

Mar 08, 2021

Professor Myungshin Im (Department of Physics & Astronomy) has been integral in broadening the field of observational cosmology and multi-messenger astronomy in South Korea. Through the course of his career, Professor Im has published over 200 papers and discovered neutron star mergers and several quasars. Professor Im was awarded the Korea Science Journalists Association’s Scientists of the Year Award in 2017, and the Korean Astronomical Society’s Research Award in 2019.

The English Editors team reached out to him to learn more about his research. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Professor Myunshin Im (Department of Physics & Astronomy), Recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award
Professor Myunshin Im (Department of Physics & Astronomy), Recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Research Award

How have you come to devote your life to observational cosmology?

As a young boy obsessed with science fiction comic books, I had always been fascinated by space. A few years later, when I was in middle school, I chanced upon a book at a bookshop that was not very popular. It was a collection of scientific literature that attempted to devise ways to establish communication with potential sentient beings outside of Earth. I couldn’t really understand what the book was talking about but it helped me to realize that what I considered science fiction could become a reality through research. In brief, this is how I came to pursue this field.

As a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins, I analyzed data collected from the Hubble Space Telescope, specifically data regarding the sizes of galaxies which I could use to develop a model for galactic evolution. It was a joy to be at the cutting edge of research in the field, but what I was doing at the time was mostly theoretical astronomy. I made my first foray into observational cosmology as a postdoc at the University of California Observatories. As a postdoc, I had the opportunity to travel to the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, home to the world’s largest optical telescopes, which allowed me to observe the spectrum of distant galaxies billions of light years away. It was quite the revelation! After this experience, I decided that rather than recreating the universe using theories and computers, I would explore the mysteries of the universe through observation, using lenses that, like time machines, give insight into galaxies light years in the past. This is how I’ve come to study the history of galaxies, black holes, and the evolution of stars. Recently, I have been exploring the dynamics of space using new observational techniques that enable video shoots of space, and I have also been focusing on multi-messenger astronomy research which includes using telescopes to investigate signals such as gravitational waves and neutrinos, in order to gain more insight into astronomical phenomena such as neutron star mergers and black hole formation.

What is the feeling of discovery like for you?

I get the feeling that the universe is limitless in every sense of the word. Sometimes, with so many scientists digging deep into a particular field, there is a limited number of rocks that have been left unturned. This is far from the case in my field. The more you learn, the more mysterious the universe appears. The universe always presents us with new questions to be answered. With the advent of new technology, we can see the universe in new ways, which makes this adventure all the more exciting. Also, because the speed of light is not infinite, to see very far away means to see directly into the past, and so we are able to directly perceive the past in the present moment. The vast, cold, and inhospitable nature of the majority of the universe makes me feel fortunate to live in an oasis that is the exact opposite of everything that surrounds it. I do my best to spend my time in this oasis as meaningfully as I can.

What is the secret to being a successful scientist?

Curiosity, dedication, and the ability to persevere through failure — intellect is only one part of the equation. No matter how smart a person may be, without the three qualities I mentioned, it is impossible to be a great scientist. I don’t consider myself gifted. Rather, everything I’ve achieved so far has been the result of constant curiosity and effort. One thing I’d like to emphasize is that in the pursuit of discovery, there is no room for indolence. One should always be thinking about the problems that must be solved, and the ways in which we can solve them.

Do you have a research achievement that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m more or less equally proud of all of my research. I’m happy to have been able to theorize the evolution of galaxies through their shape and size when I was a graduate student, which was a newly emerging field at the time, and my work on the evolution of elliptical galaxies was fortunately well received. Right after receiving my PhD, I made use of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing to study the ever accelerating rate at which the universe expands, which was published a year before a similar study that ultimately received the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the method of using gravitational lensing was not well recognized at the time. Among our many accomplishments since my appointment at SNU, I am particularly proud of having discovered several quasars, and of my research into multi-messenger astronomy, for which I have recently received an award.

What are your interests outside of work?

I like traveling and I like trying out different kinds of food. Recently, Paik Jong Won’s Backstreet was filming at a restaurant near my home and when I heard that they were filming, I rushed over to the place. Luckily, I was granted my five minutes of fame. When I was a student, I liked reading science books, collecting stamps, and building action figures. To be honest, I still enjoy building action figures on occasion. I also like Netflix, my cat, and my turtle.

What are your plans for the future?

There are so many things that I want to do. I want to find out more about the collision of neutron stars and blackholes, which emit a burst of light and gravitational waves, and learn more about the development of quasars and the way they are powered by accretion of materials into supermassive black holes. I also want to further expand on the model of the evolution of the galaxy that I had started to explore in graduate school by using the novel facilities afforded to me at present. Also, though it may not be related to the research I am currently invested in, I think it would be a lot of fun to discover new planets outside of the solar system and to search for alien life. I lose track of time just thinking about the many projects that excite me.

Written by Cheesue Kim, SNU English Editor, cheesuerocket@gmail.com
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, tlsmith@snu.ac.kr