Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2014
The Origin of the Heaviest Nuclei in the Universe
Despite immense strides in astronomy and physics over recent decades, the origin of about half of the heavy elements in the universe – from iron to uranium -- remains a mystery.
It is generally assumed these metals are forged in the nuclear reactions that make stars shine and keep them from collapsing. However, researchers want to understand very precisely the processes of nucleosynthesis, the scientific term for the cosmic formation of atoms more complex than the simple hydrogen atom.
Fröhlich is investigating the so-called “r-process” (for rapid neutron-capture), which occurs most commonly when the atoms of lighter elements are crushed and heated to unimaginable degrees, thus creating elements heavier than nickel.
However, researchers have not yet pinned down where the r-process actually occurs. Most commonly it is thought to occur when dying stars go supernova. This happens to very massive stars when they can no longer sustain the nuclear fusion that supports their iron cores and they collapse suddenly into a neutron star or a black hole, giving off a huge blast of energy.
Fröhlich and her students are not looking at exploding stars, however. They are studying the titanic forces at work when neutron stars and black holes merge and heavy metals are made. Fröhlich is using her extensive expertise in neutrinos and supernova explosions to prepare for the next generation of computer simulations of nucleosynthesis when neutron stars and black holes collide.
Her work may have important implications for areas of astronomical research at the interface with nuclear physics: our understanding of the oldest stars in the universe; chemical analysis of tiny grains of material floating in space that occasionally fall to earth; and nuclear physics experiments probing the properties of exotic materials.
The Cottrell Scholars Award will also help fund her teaching goals. She wishes to tackle the urgent need for effective computational problem-solving and communication skills among physics graduates. She will do this by developing computational projects for use in upper-level physics classes, and by preparing resource modules on effective science writing, speaking and creating posters that many scientists prepare when they attend conferences.