Gilles Fontaine

Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Science

World's foremost expert on the study of white dwarf stars

"I wanted to understand how stars die."

Dr. Fontaine is an astroseismologist - an astronomer who studies the internal structure of stars by examining changes in their light. A star-gazer since he was a teen, Fontaine trained as a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Rochester in New York. He then studied astronomy at the University of Western Ontario and, in 1977, joined the Department of Physics at the University of Montréal.

Fontaine's specialty is the study of aging stars, known as subdwarf and white dwarf stars, and the stages in a star's death. A subdwarf star is a decaying low to medium mass star which is extremely hot because its outer shells are burning off. As it loses its outer shells of helium and hydrogen, a subdwarf star gradually changes into a white dwarf - the remaining core after all the outer layers are gone. Once this last core ceases to burn, the star fades into a black dwarf.

In the 1980s, Fontaine and his team used changes in a star's luminescence to estimate the time a white dwarf takes to cool into a black dwarf. Using this information, the team calculated a lower limit on the age of the universe, reaching an estimate of some 12 billion years. More recently, using digital modeling, Fontaine used his light data to fix a star's mass, dimension, surface temperature, internal chemical composition, period of rotation and even distance from the sun. A tireless innovator, Fontaine developed many of the instruments and theoretical tools now used in astrophysics world-wide.

Author of over 200 major articles, Fontaine also participates in international scientific forums and is a vigorous spokesman for basic and applied sciences. He has attracted renowned international white dwarf researchers to the U of Montréal. A number of award-winning PhD graduates and an entire generation of young researchers studied under his guidance. Another brain-child of Dr. Fontaine is the Whole Earth Telescope, a coordinated network of telescopes placed by longitude world-wide which allows intensive observations of pulsating stars.

In 2001, Fontaine was appointed Canada Research Chair, a federally funded position promoting excellence in research, at the U of Montréal.

Sources: NSERC News Release, November 3, 2000; Gov't of Quebec Press Release, November 23, 1999; Government of Canada. Photo: NSERC.

 

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