Our Campus: Dr. Jaymie Matthews ‘translates the language of the universe,’ from the classroom to Sophie's Cosmic Café

When you walk into the office of Dr. Jaymie Matthews, you’ll need a moment to take everything in. It is filled to the brim with knick-knacks of every shape and size, and the floor is barely visible in places. Matthews, a professor of astronomy and physics at UBC, assured me that the chaos is intentional.

“It kind of just reflects my character. People think on the surface that it’s all sci-fi, but … it’s a wide variety of things,” he said. “I have an eclectic style in terms of my fashion. The pattern is very difficult for people to discern.”

The items include a Darth Vader marionette from Mexico, a motion-sensor at the door that makes the sound of the USS enterprise as you enter, a signed photo of John Cleese from the actor himself, a poster from a now-defunct pub in Vienna and a photocopy of a bottle of “dehydrated water” — and there are stories behind every single item.

Matthews’s eclecticism continues in his attire — he was notably wearing a plastic banana around his neck on the day of the interview — and his weekend activities. For many years, he has been running the Sunday afternoon trivia at Sophie’s Cosmic Café.

“I kind of became the resident rocket scientist, who puts a little extra ‘cosmic’ in the Cosmic Café,” he said. These trivia events are not just about science, but are also about current events in Canada and around the world.

“Getting the right answer is a combination of sometimes knowledge, often luck and a little bit of wackiness,” said Matthews.

Though “wackiness” is clearly something that pervades Matthews’s life, science is just as important. Besides teaching in the department of astronomy and physics at UBC, he is an accomplished researcher and astrophysicist with credits from around the world, including the Order of Canada in 2006. He also serves as the lead on the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) telescope project, Canada’s first and only space telescope, and as an executive member of other research projects like NASA’s Kepler mission and the BRITE Constellation satellite.

Matthews’s interest in the universe, however, began long before his many research accomplishments came to fruition.

“It all started about 13.7 billion years ago in something we call the Big Bang. But we’ll fast-forward through most of that … it’s not very interesting,” he said, as he began to summarize his career. “I was into astronomy and science from my earliest memories. Literally, my earliest memories from around age two are of looking up at the points of light in the sky and wondering what they were.”

“Getting the right answer is a combination of sometimes knowledge, often luck and a little bit of wackiness,” said Matthews.

— Dr. Jaymie Matthews, UBC professor of astronomy and physics

Matthews grew up in Chatham, Ontario. After skipping a year of high school, he began attending the University of Toronto at age 16 to get his undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy. With the support of his mentor, astronomer Dr. John Percy, Matthews was an author on three scientific papers before graduating with his B.Sc.

Since his work with Percy, Matthews has been interested in the fields of stellar seismology, which uses the surface vibrations of stars to study their interiors, and in exoplanet research — planets outside of our solar system. But besides his own research interests, Matthews takes his role as an educator very seriously.

“It’s very satisfying that I can offer to students today the kind of opportunities that John Percy offered to me when I was an undergraduate,” he said.

Of the many research papers that have come out of the MOST research program that Matthews leads, 13 of them have undergraduate students as first authors. He is currently mentoring graduate student Michelle Kunimoto, who in 2017 was named one of Forbes’s 30 Under 30 in science for her discovery of four new exoplanets while she was still an undergraduate.

“I became a professor to be a research scientist because I’m curious,” said Matthews. “But education and outreach are incredibly important parts of my life, and I really enjoy doing it.”

Matthews’s curiosity and his love of science are driving forces in his life. He has progressed from looking up at the stars at age two and wondering what they were, to being one of the leading experts on astrophysics in the world.

“I can look at a particular [star] … and I can close my eyes and I can picture it as a real place … with three-dimensional worlds whirling around it,” he said. “I can also take you out and I can describe it to you. And then you can be out on a clear night … and close your eyes, and you can see what I see. And then you can do that with a friend, and then they’ll be able to do it.”

Matthews has been privy to first-time scientific discoveries throughout his career, such as the discoveries of several exoplanets, but he emphasizes that it’s not just first-time discoveries that make science rewarding. He stresses the importance of curiosity, learning for its own sake and scientific literacy.

“Science is storytelling, and we’re all storytellers,” he said. “It’s just that [scientists] are trying to figure out the language that the universe speaks … and translate it into languages that everyone can understand.”