Computational Cosmology in Classrooms and in Research
Nagai is a cosmologist and astrophysicist interested in the origin, structure and formation of the Universe. His current efforts rely on theoretical and computational cosmology and astrophysics. Nagai is investigating galaxy clusters, among the largest-known gravitationally bound objects in the universe. He hopes to understand cluster processes with a goal to use this knowledge to further understand cosmological processes that lead to galaxy formation and evolution, as well as other phenomena such as dark energy and dark matter. Colleagues describe Nagai as a “brilliant” teacher whose classes attract not only physics majors but also economics and social science majors, motivating some non-science majors to switch to research careers. He also encourages undergraduate students to participate in his research projects; an arrangement which RCSA has long maintained is the most effective method of science teaching, because it allows students to solve real-world problems rather than merely to memorize textbook knowledge. Also, since 2009 he has been delivering popular lectures to local high school students and the general public at Yale’s advanced, high-resolution digital planetarium. Nagai received the Cottrell Scholar Award (CSA) based on his peer-reviewed proposal that included both research and teaching projects. His CSA science project aims to build on his existing research and advance computational modeling of galaxy clusters using state-of-the art computer programs and the very latest data from the space-based Chandra X-ray observatory, among other sources. In the process, he hopes to improve scientists’ understanding of galaxy cluster evolution over a wide range of mass and redshift conditions. In ordinary terms “mass” refers to our idea of how heavy an object is. But among cosmologists like Nagai, mass is actually viewed as a property of inertia; that is, the tendency of an object to remain at constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force—and forces are beyond titanic when entire galaxies are affecting one another. Meanwhile, “redshift” occurs in light from a distant star or galaxy when the object is rapidly moving away from us – the light’s wavelength grows longer (shifting to the red end of the spectrum) as the object accelerates. Nagai’s CSA teaching project involves developing a new introductory course on cosmology and astrophysics to attract undergraduate students to science. He also intends to create an astronomy curriculum that engages students in cutting-edge research. “Specifically, I will integrate research and education by incorporating state-of-the-art computer simulations of the universe developed by my research group, adapting them for data visualization and teaching,” Nagai said. He noted that astronomy has tremendous public appeal, and that it is the only science offered in “dedicated museum-like facilities,” namely, a planetarium and an observatory, at Yale. “This makes astronomy a unique vehicle for encouraging science literacy among the general public.” Nagai said he hopes his computerized, highly visual approach to teaching could eventually serve as a model for teaching an assortment of technologies that underlie modern scientific inquiry.