British professor’s project helps astronomical community study the stars

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (December 4, 2018) – With ongoing funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA since 1981, Gary Ferland developed special computer code to study how light from distant celestial bodies is produced.

“In astronomy, we (have to be) very smart to find ways to analyze the messages the stars send to us, and the light we receive is difficult to interpret; it is not produced in a simple way,” said Ferland, who is a teacher in the British College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics and Astronomy. “So I started in Cambridge to develop computer code that predicted exactly how light would be emitted.”

Ferland’s project, known as “Cloudy”, helps astronomers understand the light received here on Earth. This allows them to study objects in our own galaxy, as well as objects on the far reaches of the universe.

“We can look at things here and now, and look a long, long way back in time,” said Ferland, who used Cloudy to study relatively near solar systems and extremely distant quasars that emitted light ago. 12 to 13 billion years ago.

Ferland explains his process by describing how light passes through a prism and becomes a rainbow or a spectrum.

“Spectroscopy is the science of taking that light and extracting the information that tells us where it came from,” he said. “We know what the answer is – the answer is the specter we saw. What we are trying to figure out is what happened there.”

By applying the laws of quantum mechanics, Ferland and his team use large computer simulations to predict exactly what light will come out. And then, using the spectrum, they come back to make assumptions about how the received light was produced. The technology has been widely used by astronomers around the world for almost 40 years since it was openly available, making it one of the most cited projects in astronomy.

“Understanding what the stars are telling us is so important to everything we do,” Ferland said.

And by learning Cloudy’s code, Ferland says his students are also learning skills that can be applied to physics, astronomy and beyond. While many of his former students are now professors working in astronomy, one of them now works as an engineer for Google.

“These (computer) languages ​​are very familiar with the way banks do transactions, the way you buy something on the web. The skills acquired by working on Cloudy are therefore directly transferred to the skills needed to get out and find a job. Fayette County, or Kentucky, is doing something that is computer related, “he said.” Science is moving very fast, and it’s the young people who make it really possible. Because it is all a human effort. “


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