According to our Special Topics analysis of gamma-ray
burst (GRB) research over the past decade, the scientist
whose work ranks at #3 by total cites is Dr. Dale Frail,
with 92 papers cited a total of 4,745 times. In
Essential Science IndicatorsSM from
Reuters, his record includes 115 papers, the majority
of which are classified in Space Science, cited a total of
5,507 times between January 1, 1999 and February 28,
Dr. Frail is an Astronomer and Assistant Director for Scientific and
Academic Affairs at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro,
In the interview below, he talks
with ScienceWatch.com about his highly cited work
related to GRBs.
Would you tell us a bit about your
educational background and research experiences?
I received my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1989. I came from a
physics background but I specialized in radio astronomy for my Ph.D.
I've always been interested in high-energy astrophysics. Many high-energy
astrophysical phenomena (pulsars, active galactic nuclei, supernovae, etc.)
emit at radio wavelengths. High-energy electrons radiate at these
wavelengths as they interact with magnetic fields.
What first interested you in GRBs?
"...GRB energetics remain one of our
best tools to understanding the central
In 1993 the GRB mystery was more than 20 years old—it has an
interesting history tied into the Cold War and nuclear test-ban treaties. I
read a paper by Bohdan Paczyn'ski and James E. Rhoads that predicted the
existence of faint "afterglows" visible at radio wavelengths because of the
energetic electrons accelerated in the shock generated by the gamma-ray
Given our background in radio astronomy, my colleague, Shri Kulkarni, and I
immediately knew this paper was onto the right idea. We began an
observational program in 1993 that finally bore fruit in 1997 after the
launch of the Italian-Dutch satellite BeppoSAX. Our group is credited with
discovering the first radio "afterglow" as well as establishing that GRBs
are at cosmological distances.
One of your most-cited papers in our analysis is
the 2001 Astrophysical Journal paper, "Beaming in gamma-ray
bursts: Evidence for a standard energy reservoir" (Frail DA, et
al., 562: L55-8, Part 2, 20 November 2001). Would you tell us
about this paper, and why you think it's so highly cited?
Measuring the energy release of GRBs is one of the key pieces to
understanding what the "central engine" is that gives rise to these
short-lived, relativistic explosions. If the explosion was isotropic, the
implied energy released from some of these events was 1054 ergs.
This is comparable to converting the rest mass energy of our Sun into
gamma-rays and doing it on a timescale of 10 s. Such energies were hard to
contemplate and to build realistic theoretical models.
In 2001, we published this paper, which pulled together all the available
afterglow data at the time and showed that gamma-ray burst outflows were
not isotropic but rather beamed into narrow opening angles. This lowered
the energies substantially to the point where most events had an energy
release of order 1051 ergs. This is comparable to the energy
release in a supernova explosion—large but not out of the realm of
It's hard to say why a paper gets cited more often than others. The paper
was a synthesis of what we knew in 2001 and it reached some conclusions
about GRB energetics that are still not fully resolved even today. It comes
back to the fact that GRB energetics remain one of our best tools to
understanding the central engine properties.
Late last year, you were part of the team on the
Astrophysical Journal paper, "New imaging and spectroscopy of
the locations of several short-hard gamma-ray bursts" (Gal-Yam A,
et al., 686: 408-16, 10 October 2008). Could you tell our
readers something about this paper?
There are two classes of GRBs: long-duration bursts, which we started
studying the afterglows from in 1997, and short-hard bursts (SHB). The SHBs
were difficult to observe until the launch of NASA's Swift satellite in
"...because of their extreme
brightnesses, GRBs and their afterglows can
be detected from the earliest stages of our
universe, a time when the first stars and
black holes were beginning to
This paper does a synthesis of all the data we have on SHBs and starts to
draw some conclusions about the progenitor population from which they
originate. While not definitive, the evidence is growing that SHBs
originate from the gravitational merger of two compact objects (black hole
or neutron star). The interest in this paper and others like it is tied to
the major efforts that are underway to detect gravitational waves (e.g.
LIGO). This paper provides some estimates of the event rate of such compact
How has our knowledge of GRBs changed over the past
At the start of 1997 our ignorance was almost total. We really didn't know
whether GRBs were in our Galaxy or whether they were a cosmological
population. If we fast forward 12 years we recognize a diverse range of
cosmological explosions, we understand what the progenitor populations are
for many of them, and we are starting to use them as probes of the early
Where would you like to take your research on GRBs
in the next decade?
In short—the highest energies and the highest redshifts. Energetics
are still a key part to understanding where and how these explosions
originate. NASA's Fermi mission is capable of detecting GeV photons from
gamma-ray bursts. Such events may represent some of nature's most extreme
explosions in terms of total energy and therefore put our theories to the
most stringent tests.
Second, because of their extreme brightnesses, GRBs and their afterglows
can be detected from the earliest stages of our universe, a time when the
first stars and black holes were beginning to form. Last month we detected
a GRB at a redshift of z=8.2, a time when the universe was only 630 million
years old. If stellar collapse gave rise to gamma-ray bursts there is
nothing in principle stopping us from observing GRBs at even earlier epochs
in the age of the universe.
What would you say the "take-home message" about
your work should be?
"Don't be afraid to kiss some frogs." When we started looking for
afterglows in 1993 we didn't really know if our radio telescopes were
sensitive enough. We took a risk and we persisted. For that we were among
the first to work in this new field of afterglows.
Any success we have had has come from being early to this field and by
trying to ask the big, overarching questions. You cannot build an entire
research career on tackling high-risk projects, but it is difficult to make
a significant impact without taking some risks.
Dale A. Frail
Office of Science and Academic Affairs
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Socorro, NM, USA