Assoc. Prof. Erik Shirokoff, a University of Chicago astronomer who built instruments to understand the earliest ages of the universe, died Jan. 26. He was 43.
Known as a generous and patient mentor and teacher, Shirokoff was a faculty member in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and a senior member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, focusing on studying the evolution of the universe and the formation of stars and galaxies.
Born on Dec. 13, 1979 in Los Angeles, California, Shirokoff’s curiosity about the world was evident from an early age, according to friends and family. He received his undergraduate degree in physics and astrophysics in 2002 and his Ph.D. in physics in 2011, both from the University of California, Berkeley. He spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology before joining the University of Chicago faculty in 2014.
Shirokoff specialized in developing exquisitely sensitive detectors to pick up faint signals from the early ages of the universe. He figured out a way to build superconducting detectors into large arrays which have been used to make the most precise measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the 14-billion-year-old light from the period right after the Big Bang.
Most recently, Shirokoff was working to develop a new generation of detectors to do what’s known as line intensity mapping—a burgeoning field of astronomy that promises to shed new light on the underlying distribution of matter in the universe and on the first stars and galaxies to form after the Big Bang.
“Erik was a genius with detectors,” said UChicago Prof. John Carlstrom, a colleague, collaborator and friend of Shirokoff’s for many years. “His work has already resulted in enormous amounts of new science, and his contributions to next-generation spectroscopy will help open a new window on the universe. He had a vision for the future of astronomy which we will carry forward.”
Shirokoff was an integral part of the collaboration that built and runs the South Pole Telescope, which maps the leftover light from the epoch right after the Big Bang, known as the cosmic microwave background. While a graduate student, he helped produce the first generation of detectors for the telescope, persevering in the face of multiple technical setbacks to build arrays by hand. In 2009, he served as part of the two-person South Pole Station “wintering over” crew—staying at the Pole to operate the telescope through the nine-month-long Antarctic winter during which no aircraft can fly in or out.