Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In which we discover that young astronomers can get very excited about their new discoveries about the universe

The last two weeks of my Modern Astronomy classes have been conducted by two young, exciting astronomers talking about their work. One was Ilana Klamer, a specialist in supermassive black holes (SMBHs) with some groundbreaking ideas on how it is possible that quasars (the emissions from the accretion disks of super-supermassive black holes) formed in the early universe. Ilana was so keen to tell us about her SMBHs and her research in particular that I matched her disappointment when she realised that the time alloted for the lecture was at an end.
(The security guy prowling around the doorway to the lecture theatre was the clue -- he wanted to go home and have his dinner, I think.)
The other young astronomer was Bryan Gaensler, who was named Young Australian of the Year in 1999. Back in his home town, he was the ideal lecturer. He impressed me with his ability to deliver a coherent, structured lecture at the same time as he answered questions that caused him to skip around his PowerPoint slideshow in non-consecutive order. He talked about an event that happened on December 28, 2004, when a magnetar on the other side of our galaxy sent out an "insanely powerful" half-second flash that was a thousand times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way. Fortunately for us, the flash was mostly gamma rays, which don't penetrate the earth's atmosphere and can't be seen by the human eye. Phew!
These youngsters (!) have such a fresh approach to their research and they are very easy to listen to. How inspiring.

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