While our main focus here at tBBC is to cover Ohio State sports, we have also ventured outside of sports from time-to-time. During football season we had a weekly piece about that Ohio State University Marching Band and Ken regularly provides us with updates on the research going on at the James. Continuing with this branching out, I am starting a new series where each week I will choose a different department at OSU and highlight the exciting work that they are currently doing. I was inspired to do this because I have grown tired of hearing people talk about Ohio State as though it was just a jock school and that its academics aren’t that great. In reality OSU is a top university not only in the US but in the world. Thus I hope through this series to point out how Ohio State’s excellence extends beyond the playing field/court to the classrooms, labs, and to the world at large.
My day job is as a researcher in astronomy and I have previously written on tBBC about some cool, at least to me, astronomy things. Thus I figured it would be appropriate to start off this series with a look at the Department of Astronomy. Consisting of 26 faculty, 16 research staff members, and over two dozen graduates students, the OSU Department of Astronomy is a fairly large astronomy group with a wide range of research interests that cover everything from exoplanets to how stars are formed and their structure to how galaxies are formed to the evolution and formation of the universe.
A key thing for an observational astronomy department is access to telescope time and Ohio State has guaranteed that its astronomers will have access to time on large, state-of-the-art telescopes by becoming a partner in the Large Binocular Telescope. The LBT, located on Mount Graham in Arizona, became operational in 2005 and is one of the most advanced optical telescopes in the world. It uses unique design of having two 8.4-meter diameter mirrors on the same mount (hence the name). This design gives the telescope the same light gathering area as a single 11.8-meter diameter mirror and the resolving power, ability to see detail, of a 22.8-meter diameter telescope. This design allows OSU astronomers to observe very faint objects and to resolve fine details of objects that may not be visible on other telescopes.
Earlier this month, the American Astronomical Society held its annual winter meeting. This meeting was attended by approximately 3,400 Astronomers making it the largest meeting of its type in the world. OSU was well represented at this meeting with professors and graduate students presenting talks and posters on their research. Like many professional societies, the AAS gives out awards each year recognizing the outstanding work of members of the field. The awards for 2014 were announced at the meeting in DC and Ohio State Professor Christopher Hirata was announced as the recipient of the Helen B. Warner Prize. The Warner Prize is handed out each year to a young astronomer, younger than 36, who has already made outstanding contributions in observational or theoretical astronomy; Chris is the second OSU professor to receive the award in the past 6 years as Scott Gaudi won the award in 2009, showing the excellent young faculty that OSU is attracting.
Professor Hirata was chosen for this award thanks to his work in cosmology (no, that doesn’t involve makeup), particularly his work on gravitational lensing. In addition to making things fall when you drop them and keeping the planets orbiting the Sun, gravity also bends light rays; this actually occurs due to massive objects warping space-time in a manner similar to having a group of people holding a stretched sheet and then placing a bowling ball in the middle of the sheet. Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive object such as a star or a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies lines up between us and a more distant object. Normally we would only see the light from the distant object that were emitted straight towards us while light it emits in other directions would never reach Earth. However the gravity from the object in between us will bend the path of the light traveling near it, resulting in some of the light that would have missed the Earth being bent enough to reach Earth. This bent light results in us seeing multiple images of the distant object on the sky with those images elongated in a curved shape and magnified due to how the lensing works.
In addition to be a cool effect, gravitational lensing is a powerful tool to measure the distribution of matter, especially dark matter, in the universe. A larger concentration of matter results in a stronger lensing effect, thus astronomers can determine the amount of matter in an area by measuring the amount of lensing that it causes. Dark matter is a form of matter whose nature is still rather mysterious; it earned its name because it does not emit or absorb light, in fact it only interacts with other things through the force of gravity. Thus, the only way to determine how much dark matter is present a part of the universe is to look at it gravitational effects on other matter and light. Professor Hirata’s work has played a key role in helping us understand the distribution of dark matter in the universe which helps us to better understand the formation, evolution, and future of our universe.