Studying the Drivers of Galaxy Evolution: Gas Reservoirs, Molecular Fractions, and Star Formation
The atoms composing our material world are themselves composed of yet-smaller particles of a general type that physicists call baryons. A baryon, in turn, is composed of three quarks, which have as one of their main features the ability to participate in the so-called "strong force," one of the four fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak force are the others). "One of the most astounding results from modern cosmology," says Cottrell Scholar Alberto Bolatto, "is that the baryons that constitute every-day matter add up to a meager 4 percent of the matter-energy density of the universe." The rest may be so-called "dark" matter and energy about which we know very little. Bolatto notes that when baryons are collected into galaxies, they endow the universe with most of its readily observable properties - "and its most exciting by-product, intelligent life." Thus, understanding how baryons are processed to form stars, making galaxies evolve, is vital to developing a full understanding of how the universe works. His Cottrell Scholar Award research focuses on understanding the underlying physics of the relation between the pervasive interstellar gas molecules - composed of baryons—drifting through space and star formation.
Bolatto's educational proposal takes this knowledge to the classroom and beyond, furthering the teaching of the process of scientific inquiry. "Part of the problem," he says, "is that education frequently puts the emphasis on the use of discoveries as tools, rather than on the process of inquiry used to arrive to those discoveries. Learning science is not so much about learning the products or outcomes of fundamental human curiosity, such as Pythagoras' theorem, but about grasping the process by which knowledge is acquired and validated. The greatest challenge faced by our generation of scientists is spreading knowledge of this process to the rest of society." He says he will tap into the power of the Internet by expanding the successful Astronomy Workshop suite of programs on the solar system developed for public use by a colleague, Prof. Douglas Hamilton, with computer-based learning tools on cosmology, galaxies and radio astronomy. He also plans on continuing his program of mentorship and outreach, with particular emphasis on reaching out to the Hispanic community.