Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2016
The Nature and Nurture of Galaxies: Dynamics, Dark Matter, and Data Mining
The past few decades have been a golden age for better understanding the universe, says Aaron Romanowsky, assistant professor of physics & astronomy, San José State University.
“Through a combination of experimental and theoretical triumphs, we have arrived at an overarching framework – a ‘standard cosmological paradigm’ – for explaining the expansion of the Universe and the evolution of stars and galaxies, and ultimately the creation of planets and life,” Romanowsky says.
But there are still some big gaps in that paradigm, he points out.
One of them is the posited existence of “cold” dark matter, an invisible sea of slow-moving, exotic particles thought to comprise about 85 percent of the mass in the universe. Dark matter is thought to provide much of the gravitational attraction that drives the evolution of galaxies. “The evidence for dark matter is still rather indirect, and has shortcomings in the arena where dark matter was first established: in the anomalous internal motions of galaxies,” Romanowsky points out.
To probe deeper into the mysteries surrounding DM and its influence on galaxies, Romanowsky will analyze the outer regions of galaxies in order to understand their mass distributions and how they came to take their present forms. The research will involve charting what are assumed to be dark matter distributions across the full range of galaxy types, with a special focus on the little understood elliptical galaxies.
For the education component of the Cottrell Scholar Award, Romanowsky plans to develop new undergraduate and master’s courses that cover data science, numerical astrophysics, and visualization, all designed to provide students with practical and transferable skills for careers both in academia and in industry.
“Students will be closely mentored in cutting-edge astronomy research that includes a special focus on open-access databases and software, along with opportunities to participate in observations with the world's largest telescopes,” he said, “as well as in outreach that leverages their experiences in order to inspire others in their community to consider science and math careers.”
Students will also have the chance to engage in intensive, mentored summer computational research and training alongside talented students from other colleges, he said.