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Episode 10 - Five Milliseconds

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There are a thousand milliseconds in a second. Seconds are so small that we skip over them, like pennies that fall into the couch. And milliseconds are smaller still. They’re easy to miss. But there are five milliseconds that got pretty dramatic over the last few decades in astronomy. There was the initial discovery. Then excitement. Doubt. Confusion. People picking a side. And then we get answers.

Duncan Lorimer against a backdrop of forested hills and fireflies.

Duncan Lorimer illustrated with the night sky and fireflies. (Illustrated by Sheree Wentz.)

We wanted to tell that story of how you move from discovery to fact with an exciting case in astronomy that had no scientists involved in 2006 and now has hundreds.


This is the story of the discovery of fast radio bursts and their link to West Virginia through the scientists who were at the forefront of parsing the meaning of the first bursts.


For those who aren’t astronomers: a lexicon.


Fast: Brief, like five milliseconds brief.


Radio: Radio waves that originate in space.


Burst: A signal.


Duncan Lorimer

Now, we introduce you to our cast of characters.


There’s a nickname that the bursts have in the astronomy community: Lorimer bursts. They’re named after this guy, Duncan Lorimer. He is a professor of physics and astronomy at West Virginia University. He is also associate dean for external research development in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at the University.


Maura McLaughlin

Maura McLaughlin, who you met in our last story, “Star Hunters,” (go back and listen), is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor in physics and astronomy at WVU, and she’s married to Lorimer. She spent much of her early career looking for pulsars, and she helped develop a way to find them more quickly.


Sarah Burke-Spolaor

Sarah Burke-Spolaor, now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at WVU, was a graduate student in Australia when the first fast radio burst was discovered. It was her first day in grad school and her adviser put that first yet-to-be-published paper on the first fast radio burst on her desk and said, “I need you to find more of these.” And this search has been a fixture of her career since then.

There’s another researcher at WVU who doesn’t appear in the story but has an important connection to a radio telescope that is expected to find 1,000 fast radio bursts by the end of the year.


Kevin Bandura, assistant professor in electrical engineering, is a member of the group of scientists who put together the CHIME telescope in British Columbia, Canada. Bandura helped develop the telescope’s F-Engine, which digitally processes signals from space to create maps of the Universe. Read more about this work.


You can learn about some of the most recent fast radio burst discoveries at the CHIME website.


McLaughlin and Lorimer wrote this piece in Scientific American that gives a comprehensive timeline of fast radio bursts called “Flashes in the Night: The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts.” We are indebted to their writing.  

You can read an earlier WVU Magazine story about the discovery of the Lorimer burst


We want to thank Duncan Lorimer, Maura McLaughlin and Sarah Burke-Spolaor for telling us the story of fast radio bursts.

Let us know what you thought of this episode at You can also subscribe to our newsletter. Rate and review us on Apple Podcasts so others can find our podcast.


Sparked is a production of West Virginia University Magazine in Morgantown, West Virginia.