Rising Star in Astrophysics Receives Sloan Foundation Fellowship
February 19, 2019 – Jessica McBride – Office of the Vice President for Research
As an assistant professor of astrophysics, Kate Whitaker spends a lot of her time thinking about stars. Hundreds of billions of stars that comprise galaxies, to be more precise. But with a recent fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it is Whitaker’s star that is shining brightly.
Whitaker is one of 126 outstanding U.S. and Canadian researchers selected by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to receive 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships. The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields.
Valued not only for their prestige, Sloan Research Fellowships are a highly flexible source of research support. Funds may be spent in any way a Fellow deems will best advance his or her work.
“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”
According to colleagues, Whitaker certainly fits the bill as one of the brightest young minds at UConn and beyond.
“Kate’s record so far is truly impressive and speaks to her potential as a leader in her field,” explains Barry Wells, head of UConn’s Department of Physics. “It was my great pleasure to nominate her for a Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, and I am thrilled they felt she was worthy of the prize.”
An observational extragalactic astronomer, Whitaker’s research tries to reveal how galaxies are evolving from the earliest times to the present day.
In addition to her position at UConn, Whitaker is also an associate faculty at the new Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen, Denmark. Whitaker and her students actively collaborate with DAWN, working towards pushing our detection of quiescent “red and dead” galaxies even earlier in time.
She will be among the world’s first scientists to explore the universe using the new James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched in 2019, which she says will allow her to push into new frontiers of research.
Apart from that exciting work, Whitaker and colleagues Cara Battersby and Jonathan Trump were tasked with building a full-fledged astronomy program from scratch at UConn. Not only has their work exceeded expectations, the fruits of their labor are already beginning to emerge. Whitaker and colleagues have so far created five new astrophysics courses with two more slated for next year, established an official astronomy minor, and are operating a thriving research program that involves doctoral students, undergrads, and even local high school students.
“I am both thrilled at this opportunity and humbled to be named amongst such a prestigious cohort of scientists,” says Whitaker. “With the Sloan Foundation’s generous support, I aspire to continue to lead ground-breaking studies of the distant universe, the mystery of which will no doubt captivate our imaginations.”
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics. A full list of the 2019 Fellows is available at the Sloan Foundation website at https://sloan.org/fellowships/2019-Fellows.
About one mile from the Gant plaza, Goodwin Elementary School teaches some really bright kids. On January 15, 2019, science teacher Nancy Titchen and Goodwin teachers brought the entire 3rd grade class on a field trip to the Physics Learning Labs mock-up studio for some science fun. Students enjoyed a liquid nitrogen show, witnessed quantum effects in superconducting magnetic levitation, experienced mechanics concepts such as angular momentum, and learned about vibrations and the phenomenon mechanical of resonance. The expert hands of a star team of PhD students (Erin Curry and Donal Sheets) and new laboratory technicians (James Jaconetta and Zac Transport) ensured students had a great time and learned some interesting science. Big thanks to the staff and the Goodwin School!
UConn astrophysicist, Cara Battersby. (Carson Stifel/UConn Photo)
A young Cara Battersby once scrawled out the phrase “Science is curious” in a school project about what she wanted to do when she grew up.
This simple phrase still captures Battersby’s outlook on her research about our universe.
Recently shortlisted for the 2018 Nature Research Inspiring Science Award, Battersby has been working on several projects aimed at unfolding some of the most compelling mysteries of galaxies near and far.
“I’m really interested in how stars are born,” Battersby says. “They’re the source of all life on Earth.”
Many of the “laws” we know about how stars are formed are based exclusively on observations of our own galaxy. Because we don’t have as much information about how stars form in other galaxies with different conditions, these laws likely don’t apply as well as we think they should.
Battersby is leading an international team of over 20 scientists to map the center of the Milky Way Galaxy using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, in a large survey called CMZoom. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant to follow-up on this survey and create a 3D computer modeled map of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The center of our galaxy has extreme conditions similar to those in other far-off galaxies that are less easily studied, so the Milky Way is an important laboratory for understanding the physics of star formation in extreme conditions.
By mapping out this region in our own galactic backyard, Battersby will be able to form a better idea of how stars form in more remote areas of the universe.
“I love that astrophysics is one of the fields where I can get my hands into everything,” Battersby says. “Stars are something real that you can actually see and study the physics of.”
Battersby is also investigating the “bones” of the Milky Way. Working with researchers from Harvard University, she is looking at how some unusually long clouds could be clues to constructing a more accurate picture of our galaxy.
“Because of the size of our galaxy, it’s infeasible to send a satellite up there to take a picture,” she says.
Since we are living within the Milky Way it is much harder for us to get a clear idea of what it looks like. We know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but we don’t yet know how many “arms” the spiral has and if it’s even a well-defined spiral.
These kinds of celestial mysteries have long fascinated Battersby.
Battersby says she would “devour” astronomy books and magazines her parents gave her, but it wasn’t until college that her passion truly developed.
She did her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Colorado on high-mass stars being formed on the disk of our galaxy. During this research she made an astounding discovery that every high-density cloud in space is already in some phase of forming a star, a process that takes millions of years.
This led her to conclude that star formation starts as the cloud is collapsing bit by bit, modifying previous ideas of the timeline of this process.
“If you look at something new in a way no one’s looked at it before, the universe has a great way of surprising us,” Battersby says.
In August 2018, Professor Barrett Wells entered as the new head of the Physics department, following Professor Nora Berrah. Barrett is an experimental condensed matter physicists with a robust research program involved in both synthesis and advanced experimentation around novel phases of quantum materials. Barrett brings to the department strong administrative talent, having served a long term as the associate department head for undergraduate affairs as well as chairing many important committees since his arrival at UConn.
Learn more about Professor Wells and the physics department from a recent interview produced by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Connor Occhialini – Finalist 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award
by Jason Hancock
One of our star undergraduates, Connor Occhialini, has won national recognition as a finalist in the 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award competition for his research in the UConn Physics department. The honor and distinction is awarded not only for the excellent research achievements of the student, but also for the department that provides the supportive environment and opportunities for students to excel in research. Connor is in fact the second Apker finalist in three years’ time (Michael Cantara was a 2016 Apker finalist). Connor graduated with a BS in Physics from UConn in May 2018 and stayed on as a researcher during summer 2018. During his time here, he developed theoretical models, helped build a pump-probe laser system, and carried out advanced analysis of X-ray scattering data which revealed a new context for an unusual phenomenon – negative thermal expansion. With these outstanding achievements, the department presented Connor’s nomination to the 2018 LeRoy Apker award committee of the American Physical Society. Connor was selected to be one of only four Apker finalists from all PhD-granting institutions in the US. With this prestigious honor, the department receives a plaque and a $1000 award to support undergraduate research. Connor is now a PhD student in the Physics Department at MIT.
The Department of Physics seeks 2 dynamic and energetic applicants to join its teaching laboratory team. The Department is undergoing a deep renovation of teaching pedagogy in large-scale learning labs with full support of the University. The successful applicant will fill the Laboratory Technician 2, UCP 4 designation and assume responsibility for maintaining, troubleshooting, and organizing equipment related to learning activities in the large-scale introductory courses. In addition, the technician will be expected to provide support and training to graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and interact professionally with the teaching staff team, students, and faculty to ensure the safe and secure operation of our teaching labs. Additional duties will include maintaining and upgrading equipment, developing new educational tools under supervision, evaluating and designing laboratory procedures, providing administrative support related to the teaching labs, and assisting in the training, support, and evaluation of teaching assistants. For information about the Physics Department, please visit: http://www.physics.uconn.edu/.
Bachelor’s degree in physics or a related field and 1-3 years experience in teaching laboratory operations, or equivalent education and experience; sound knowledge of principles of and experience in experimental physics; ability to perform and explain lab procedures and edit manuals; working knowledge of standard MS Office software; ability to operate and maintain computer-based laboratory equipment; knowledge of laboratory safety procedures; ability to troubleshoot equipment similar in type and complexity to existing lab equipment; ability to perform tasks requiring manual dexterity and lift 40 lbs; ability to support evening labs as needed.
Strong written and verbal communication skills; familiarity with PASCO proprietary hardware and software; demonstrated ability to work well with students, faculty and staff in a diverse environment; familiarity with the LaTeX typesetting system; ability to create schematic drawings of experimental equipment; ability to revise current experiments and design new experiments; ability to design and perform basic repairs to electric circuits and electronic equipment; familiarity with basic experimental data analysis techniques and software tools; basic proficiency writing code in Python (or equivalent); familiarity with science education research; familiarity with studio-based instructional models;
This is a full time, 12-month permanent position with excellent benefits.
For full consideration, interested applicants should submit letter of application, resume, names and contact information for three professional references to UConn Careers. Employment of the successful candidate is contingent upon the successful completion of a pre-employment criminal background check. (Search #2019124).
All employees are subject to adherence to the State Code of Ethics which may be found at http://www.ct.gov/ethics/site/default.asp.
[The] James Webb [Space Telescope] will begin teaching us entirely new things … things we don’t even know about. — Jonathan Trump
Just like the highly anticipated release of a new phone, game, or gadget, astrophysicists worldwide are eager to start using the new telescope, the latest technology for viewing distant elements of our universe, which is currently set to launch in 2019. But rather than stand in line for hours outside a store, researchers had to submit compelling proposals to secure their spot in line and an opportunity to use the new technology.
The highly competitive, peer-reviewed James Webb Space Telescope Early Release Scienceprogram was created to test the capabilities of the new observatory and to showcase the tools the telescope is equipped with. Of more than 100 proposals submitted, only 13 were chosen to participate in the early release phase, including two separate proposals involving UConn researchers Kate Whitaker and Jonathan Trump, both assistant professors of physics.
Passing the Telescope Torch
The James Webb Space Telescope, designed to be a large space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths, will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble telescope has been a versatile workhorse and vital tool since its launch in 1990, allowing researchers to peer deep into space and get crisp glimpses of distant galaxies.
But it has technological limitations, and is not currently scheduled for any upgrades or servicing. Since its last service in 2009, Whitaker says, many researchers have been keeping their fingers crossed that it would continue functioning. Hubble is currently the only way to make observations that are required for the type of research she and many others conduct.
“A lot of my research right now is pushing Hubble to its limits,” she notes. “It’s an exciting time, because with the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, we will really push into the frontiers of research.”
The James Webb Space telescope is equipped with tools that will surpass Hubble’s capabilities. Webb will be launched further into space and will be capable of powerful imaging that will produce sharper images and be able to capture images into the infrared range.
Peering into the infrared range allows researchers to observe signatures, in the form of light, from events that happened long ago. The universe is constantly expanding and as light travels, it gets stretched over time, Whitaker explains. The further back you go, say a few billion years or so, the light is stretched so much that it will shift from the visible region of the spectrum into the infra-red.
“Since we cannot travel to these distant galaxies, all we can do is sit here and wait for their light to reach our telescopes,” says Whitaker.
Trump is a co-investigator on the proposal called “CEERS: The Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey,” a plan to conduct an extragalactic survey in hopes of gaining insights into the formation of the first galaxies following the big bang. They plan to look at aspects of the assembly of galaxies, including their number density, chemical abundance, star formation, and the growth of supermassive black holes.
“Hubble has totally transformed our view of the universe and James Webb will begin teaching us entirely new things,” Trump says. “I’m incredibly excited to think about all of the things we don’t even know about, that James Webb will begin to tell us.”
The Early Release Program is aimed not only to showcase the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope right away, but to make the data publicly available as soon as possible. It is anticipated that the data will facilitate huge breakthroughs in research.
Stay tuned: 2019 promises to be an exciting year in astrophysics.
On Monday, August 21, 2017, the moon eclipsed the sun across the US. What began as a small organic outreach activity blossomed into an epic community event. With help from UConn communications, the UConn Physics club, and staff in the physics department, astronomers Jonathan Trump, Cara Battersby, and Kate Whitaker hosted an eclipse viewing event open to the public. Solar projectors, solar glasses, and solar telescope drew and estimated 2,000 visitors, including many children and families to share in the majesty of the heavens. To read more about the great American eclipse, read the recent UConn Today article by Elaina Hancock, featuring commentary by astronomers Trump and Cynthia Peterson.
For more about the event and others around the state, see this article in the Hartford Courant
Whoever said rules were made to be broken wasn’t a physicist. When something doesn’t act the way you think it should, either the rules are wrong, or there’s new physics to be discovered. Which is exactly what UConn’s Connor Occhialini ’18 (CLAS), an honors student majoring in physics and math, found when he began researching scandium fluoride.
Scandium fluoride is a transparent crystal with a cubic shape, a byproduct of mining. It’s not used commercially and it wouldn’t be particularly interesting to anyone except for one odd thing: it shrinks as it warms.
Most materials swell as they heat up. Really simple materials like hydrogen gas swell because the heat makes their atoms zoom around faster, bumping into each other more, so the same number of hydrogen atoms need more space. More complicated materials also swell, which is why your wooden front door tends to stick in the summertime. But solids like wood can’t swell as much as a gas because their atoms are tightly linked together into long, interlocked molecules, so they just jiggle around, swelling the door a little bit.
Scandium fluoride must be doing something else, reasoned Occhialini. His advisor for his honors physics project, Jason Hancock, had been working with scandium fluoride, and asked Occhialini to study a model of the crystal’s dynamics. Scandium fluoride has a pretty simple structure: it’s a solid crystal, with each scandium atom surrounded by six fluorines to make stacks of octahedra (eight-sided diamonds). The researchers hoped the simple structure might be easy to understand. Understanding scandium fluoride’s strange ‘negative thermal expansion’, as physicists call the heat-related shrinkage, might yield more general insight into other, more complex materials that do the same thing.
Occhialini’s first step was to simplify the problem. So instead of a three-dimensional crystal, he decided to think about it as a two-dimensional sheet that looks like this:
Each black diamond represents a molecule of scandium fluoride. The scandium atoms (blue dots) are at the center of each diamond, and a fluorine atom is at each corner.
Most of the time, bonds between atoms are flexible. So in a normal crystalline solid – calcium fluoride, for example – the fluorines and calcium atoms would all be able to wiggle around independently when the material warmed up. As they wiggled, they’d take up a little more space, and the solid would swell. Normal solid behavior.
But Occhialini wondered if maybe that wasn’t what was happening in scandium fluoride. Maybe in this model, he should assume the bonds connecting each fluorine to its scandium were stiff? So stiff the fluorine-scandium bonds don’t move at all, so the diamonds are like solid blocks. The only places the structure would be able to flex when it warmed up would be at the fluorine atoms, which would act like tiny little joints. As the crystal heated up, the little scandium fluoride blocks would tilt around the fluorines at the corners. That’s what you see happening in the picture. You’ll notice that when the diamonds tilt, the whole structure gets smaller. It actually tightens up. The blue outline shows the structure at its coldest, perfectly ordered state, with no molecular motion. When the diamonds tilt, they take up a smaller total volume than the blue outline delineates. This is negative thermal expansion.
Occhialini figured out that you can describe this shrinkage mathematically, using just the angle of the molecules’ tilt. He called the angle Θ (theta). When the scandium fluoride blocks tilt by an angle Θ, the distance between the center of each block shortens by a factor of cosine Θ, and the crystal’s total volume shrinks.
To calculate that shrinkage (or, in a normal material, expansion) in detail, Occhialini added a third term to the classic equation that describes the energy of a vibrating crystal. The first two terms in the standard equation describe the potential energy a crystal has from the bending at each molecular junction, plus the kinetic energy of rotation of each molecule. Occhialini’s equation also describes the translational kinetic energy of the molecules–not just from rotating around, but also moving toward and away from their original positions as they rotate. The further they are from the center of mass of the crystal, the more they move. Look back at Figure 1 and notice the dot in the middle; that’s the center of mass. The diamonds in the middle barely move in relation to it, while the diamonds at the edges move a lot. Now imagine how much of a difference there would be if the crystal had millions of molecules instead of just 25. And now you understand how important that third term could be to the energy of the crystal.
Now, molecules being molecules, they don’t just shrink and stay there. They’re moving constantly, and the warmer they get, the more they move. Part of Occhialini’s insight is that, on average, the molecular structure gets bendier the warmer it gets. So the molecules tilt more and spend more time at bigger values of Θ, closer to 45 degrees. After Occhialini thought it over for a while together with Hancock and physics Ph.D. students Sahan Handunkanda and Erin Curry, they realized there was a geometric shape that had the same mathematical description. It’s Archimedes’ spiral pendulum, and it looks like this:
Each turning of the spiral is exactly the same distance from the last. That spacing – the distance between turns – is controlled by Θ. Imagine a line that stretches from the center of the sphere to a point on the spiral. The angle between that line and the pole of the sphere is Θ. You see the little ball traveling along the spiral? That’s the end of the imaginary line. As Θ gets bigger, the ball moves towards the equator.Imagine that the ball represents the instantaneous state of the scandium fluoride crystal – the physicists calculated the statistical average of what every molecule in the crystal is doing. You’ll notice the ball spends more time near the equator of the spiral sphere, that is, it tends to hang out where Θ is large. If the temperature of the crystal drops and the molecules wiggle less, Θ gets smaller, the more time the ball spends near the pole of the sphere and the less the crystal shrinks.
So not only can a really weird phenomenon of a crystal that shrinks as it warms be explained by just assuming the molecules are rigid, but it can be illustrated with a classical geometric shape!
Occhialini was just a freshman when Hancock introduced him to the scandium fluoride puzzle. He had to learn the math as he went, but after about two semesters of working on it he’d figured out the equation that described what was going on. Now in his senior year, he says his research experiences in Hancock’s lab have been integral to his experience as an undergraduate.
The equation works beautifully and explains certain aspects of Hancock’s experimental x-ray measurements as well.
“I learned a lot more doing research than any course could have given me,” Occhialini says.
And now you, dear reader, have learned a little bit, too.
Please join the Department of Physics at UConn for a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party!
Hosted by Prof. Cara Battersby, Prof. Jonathan Trump, and Prof. Kate Whitaker
August 21 2017, Horsebarn Hill 1:00 – 4:00 PM (next to Dairy Bar) weather permitting
From our location, the solar eclipse begins at 1:25pm and ends at 4:00pm. Maximum (partial) occultation occurs at 2:45pm.
The organizers have 150 solar eclipse glasses available on a first-come, first-serve basis (encouraging folks to recycle them when they are
done). No reservations are necessary. Here is the schedule of the events:
2:00pm Short Tutorial on Eclipses
2:45pm Maximum (partial) occultation
3:15pm Ask an Astrophysicist
There will be also an ongoing activity from 1-4pm making pin-hole cameras (great for kids!), while supplies last. Finally, there will be 4 solar
telescopes set up for the entire event.
All ages are welcome!
Join our mailing list for updates: http://tinyurl.com/uconn-astro-mailing-list