Toronto Star: Toronto innovation award winner talks galaxies, existentialism and life on Mars

As a child, George Conidis dreamily watched the heavens from his North York home. Binoculars in hand, he asked himself questions like, “What is existence?” Today, he is finding answers in astrophysics.

On Tuesday, Conidis will be presented with an award for outstanding innovation by Mitacs, a research not-for-profit. We spoke to the 32-year-old York University PhD candidate about discovering groupings of galaxies that mirror our own cosmic neighbourhood, the possibilities of life existing in the vast cosmos and his continuous search for meaning in the night sky.

Have you always been fascinated by the night sky?

When I was really young, I would go out and learn constellations on my own with my binoculars. But that interest coalesced around 2000. Mars was getting really close to the earth then, and that was about the time I had just saved up enough money to get a telescope. With it, I was able to see Olympus Mons, which is a massive, massive mountain chain on Mars.

You’re watching this and it’s not Sci-Fi — it’s legitimately a moment when you’re perceiving light being reflected off this object from the sun and going into your eye. There’s something to be said about that. It just kind of changes your worldview and humbles you in a very unique way. And with stars, when you start figuring out the distances of these things, you start realizing, ‘Wow — this star is 2000 light years away!’ Like, the light hitting your eye was released at the time Christ was walking on the planet.

Why did you decide to study astrophysics?

When I was young, I found a deep passion in philosophy that was underwritten by my older brother, who’s a mathematician. I realized that the union between philosophy and mathematics is actually in physics. It really just makes sense to me that physics is thestory. And in astrophysics, there’s no laboratory. Astrophysics is just the way physics is.

What led to you winning the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation?

The award is mostly targeting the fact that I’ve applied modern day computing techniques to astrophysics, like big data techniques coupled with pattern recognition code, created by me..

What are you researching now?

We live in a galaxy and a galaxy is a grouping of stars. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. I’m looking at our neighbourhood of galaxies — that is, the galaxies residing next door to us. . By sifting through large amounts of data, I have been able to identify basic copies of our neighbourhood out in the local universe. I found 174 copies starting with 1.2 million galaxies in my original search.

174 copies of our galactic neighbourhood? Does that mean that there are 174 Milky Ways out there?

We need to allow for some variation, but within a certain variation which is reasonable scientifically or statistically.

Does that lead you to believe that there could be life out there?

Truth be told, I’m pretty imaginative. Life just needs an energy source. I like to think that life is pretty adaptable and that we have to think beyond our own constraints as human beings. We rely on oxygen and sunlight, but then we find extremophiles at the bottom of the ocean that can thrive on completely different energy sources.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Daniel Otis, Toronto Star