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UConn physics department hosts cosmic colloquium

Campus Correspondent

Published: Sunday, January 26, 2014

Updated: Sunday, January 26, 2014 23:01

Physics Colloquium


Harvard professor Julia Lee addresses colloquium participants at the University of Connecticut on Friday. The topic of the colloquium was “Experimental Astrophysics: From Black Hole Winds to Cosmic Dust.”

In a spirited talk on Friday Jan. 24, professor Julia Lee, CFA, from Harvard University, gave a rundown of new exciting possibilities coming from the studies of cosmic dust and the answers they provide about the ways the universe works in her lecture “Experimental Astrophysics: From Black Hole Winds to Cosmic Dust.”

Black holes, the physicist’s beautiful nightmare, are enigmas not only because of their distance, but because their very natures make it impossible to study them directly. She said during her visit that to retrieve any information back from the edge of a gravity field that can consume even light is no small feat. However, new breakthroughs in X-ray spectroscopy have made it possible for new, cutting-edge research of astronomical significance.

She spoke of the “near and long-term dusty future” to be explored, closing with the statement that “there is a lot of work to be done in the lab in order to further our understanding” of interstellar space, black holes, and cosmic dust. She said she has helped to solve a “90-year-old mystery” surrounding interstellar bands, and has been able to provide much “cosmically interesting” information.

When asked how she became involved at UConn, Lee said she knows a few UConn faculty members. She lauded UConn’s “experimental expertise,” particularly in reference to its laser facilities, and says she is open to prospects of future collaboration with the school.

Lee also expressed her excitement in anticipation of the Astro-H launch, from which there will be opportunity for much data gathering.

Astro-H is an orbiting observatory in development in Japan, to be launched in 2015. It will be equipped with a Soft X-ray Spectrometer, or SXS, an unparalleled, highly sensitive X-ray spectroscopic system, which was developed in part by NASA.

This system can accurately relay information about metals floating about the cosmos as dust, which can further furnish scientists’ understanding of the “origin of the elements,” according to NASA’s website.

The equipment is so state-of-the-art that it can provide “time-resolved spectra from material approaching the event horizon of a black hole.”

To the layperson, this boggles the mind, but as Lee explained in her talk, the processes involved are actually remarkably well-established and hold a myriad of possibilities for curious scientists and intellectuals alike. 

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