ERC Advanced Grant for research on senses and fast X-ray flashes

Radboud researchers Uta Noppeney and Peter Jonker have both been awarded an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

The amount of the Advanced Grant may vary, but it is about 2.5 million that can be used by the recipients to continue their research for the next five years. A total of 544 million in grants will be allocated to 218 projects across Europe in this round.


Uta Noppeney, Professor of Systems Neuroscience affiliated with the Donders Institute, received an Advanced Grant for her project entitled ’Making Sense of the Senses: casual inference in a complex dynamic multisensory world’. Within this interdisciplinary project, Noppeney and her colleagues combine research in statistics, neuroscience, and behaviour to determine how well our brains convert the daily crossfire of signals into a coherent picture.

To deal effectively with our complex and multisensory world, for example in busy traffic situations, the brain needs to process many signals quickly. To do so, it has to solve the causal inference problem: decide which signals come from the same source and process and integrate them appropriately. We do not know at this point how the brain manages to overcome its limitations and process approximate solutions to realistic scenes.

The project develops a new computational and neuromechanical explanation of causal inference in more realistic multisensory situations. Bringing laboratory research closer to the real world changes the perspective from near-optimal passive perception in simple situations to active information-gathering at the service of approximate solutions in more realistic situations. This can potentially help produce new AI algorithms, as well as generate insights into the problems experienced by older people with declining perception.

X-ray flashes

Peter Jonker, Professor of Observational High-energy Astrophysics, was awarded a 3 million research grant for research on fast X-ray flashes. Back in 2013, Jonker discovered the first fast X-ray flash. Until recently, these flashes could only be found by chance in satellite observations, in the weeks and often even years after a flash had gone off. This made it virtually impossible to study light at other wavelengths, such as visible light, which accompanies such flashes.

Recent research by Jonker’s group and others suggests that these flashes could well be formed immediately after two neutron stars merge. We are now also able to ’hear’ such events via gravitational wave detections. The new Einstein Probe X-ray satellite will be launched at the end of this year. This will allow researchers to quickly find the flashes, as well as the visible light released with them.

Jonker: "If the new research study shows that these fast X-ray flashes are indeed associated with gravitational waves measured when two neutron stars merge, we can combine the data, thus creating a unique opportunity to investigate the expansion rate of the universe. Our current measurements of this expansion rate do not match. Furthermore, we will be able to investigate where rare earth metals such as platinum and gold are formed. We think that these metals are formed when neutron stars merge, but this is still uncertain. Finally, it could well be that more than one kind of source is responsible for these flashes. We see a lot of them, so maybe we will discover a totally new kind of source."