Cynthia Chiang, Cosmologist

Cynthia Chiang, Cosmologist

National Geographic Explorer Cynthia Chiang studies the cosmic dawn and the dark ages. As an associate professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Chiang specializes in building and deploying radio telescopes. She travels to remote locations including the Canadian High Arctic and Marion Island in the sub-Antarctic. Her work has allowed her to collaborate with researchers in other fields and provide new opportunities for students, all of which have revealed unexpected new dimensions in Chiang’s professional explorations.


3 - 12+


Astronomy, Physics

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Early Work

I've loved science and working with my hands for as long as I can remember. My mother is an astronomer and my father is an experimental physicist. But I admit that my research directions have been shaped by a streak of impulsiveness, coupled with some lucky encounters. I first learned about the existence of experimental cosmology in graduate school. When I visited the lab that I ultimately joined for my PhD, it was love at first sight. The science questions they were trying to answer were profound ones about the early universe, and yet the lab itself had a very down-to-earth feel with a beautifully chaotic hodgepodge of cryogenic hardware, vacuum lines and tools spilling everywhere. I had never taken a single astrophysics class, but I decided on the spot that I had to give experimental cosmology a try. I never left. I was working in millimeter-wavelength instrumentation at that time and my later transition to radio was a similar stroke of luck. When I accepted my first faculty position in South Africa, opportunities in radio astronomy and cosmology were growing rapidly within the country. The new opportunities sounded way too fun to pass up -- who wouldn't want to tackle unanswered questions in cosmology by building scrappy little telescopes out of PVC pipes and chicken wire? Even though I had never done anything at radio wavelengths, I decided to jump in and the adventures have surpassed anything I could have imagined. I suppose my dark ages pathfinder research is the wildest ride in the culmination of those adventures, both in terms of high-risk science and unique challenges in instrumentation development.

Most Exciting Part of Your Work

The aspect of my work that I love the most is that we get to think about big questions in our understanding of the universe and that we simultaneously get to design and build machines to answer those questions. In the words of Galileo, we try to "make measurable what is not so." Because our telescopes are built from scratch, we can optimize and tinker to our hearts' content. Every day is a little different because we're responsible for all aspects of our telescopes: mechanics, electronics, software, etc. I like to joke that this type of research is good for people with short attention spans.

Most Demanding Part of Your Work

We install our radio telescopes at remote sites like the Canadian high Arctic, and the main challenges come from unexpected operational setbacks that are beyond anyone's control. A big one is weather. For example, our 2022 Arctic crew was weathered in for a record-breaking 17 days at Resolute Bay before they could fly onward to our installation site on Axel Heiberg Island. But despite having the on-site time cut in half, our crew pulled off the miracle of completing the full plan of work for that season and returned home in high spirits. We always find ways to roll with the punches, one way or another, although it can get pretty exhausting and heartbreaking at times!

What Being an Explorer Means to You

I am very lucky that my project allows our team to explore the farthest reaches of our universe while simultaneously exploring our planet Earth. The question of what our universe looked like in the distant past is one that humans have asked for as long as we've existed, and it's remarkable that we can work toward answering this question in quantitative ways by building specialized telescopes. It's equally remarkable that there are quiet corners of the Earth where we can operate our telescopes and hear the faint radio whispers from the cosmos. Through our journeys, we've also made new connections with other researchers. For example, in the Arctic, we have glaciologist colleagues who work at the same location and we've discovered that we can work together to develop instrumentation that's useful for both glaciology and cosmology -- a seemingly improbable combination! Finding these unique intersections with other researchers has added an unexpected but wonderful new dimension to our explorations.

Elements of Your Work That Make You Proud

Our day-to-day work includes a little bit of everything and our research is therefore very accessible to young researchers with diverse backgrounds. I'm most proud of our students: They are the driving force behind our instrumentation development and they truly are the heroes who just make everything work, even under seemingly impossible circumstances. Providing opportunities for students to answer unsolved, fundamental science questions is of course a powerful motivating factor, but it's equally important to me that the skills developed along the way are as broadly applicable as possible. Seeing the students thriving (and, most importantly, having fun!) in our research environment and then springboarding to a kaleidoscopic array of subsequent career paths is the greatest reward.

Advice to Students

One of my favorite quotes is from I. I. Rabi, who said "I think physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. They never grow up, and they keep their curiosity." My main advice is to hang on tight to that curiosity and let it take you for a ride. We live in a beautiful world that's full of mysteries and there are myriad exploration adventures to be had. All that's needed as a starting point is taking the time to pause, look and marvel at the unknown.

Get Involved

Radio astronomy has a large hobbyist community and there are many online resources for building basic telescopes and analyzing data. Some examples include:

Media Credits

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Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

June 20, 2024

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