In elementary school, students are given a general understanding of ‘outer space.’ They are taught the names of the nine planets and their moons and the size of the sun. However, our universe consists of a lot more, much of which is unknown even to scientists.
Scientists estimate that they understand only five percent of the universe, and they are eager to decipher the remaining parts.
Ronald Stern, dean of the School of Physical Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, recently established a Center for Cosmology. The center will help scientists to research the evolution and formation of the universe.
The center’s goal will be to interpret already known information in an effort to answer fundamental questions, as James Bullock, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, explained.
‘The three main [foci] of researchers are … the big questions in cosmology,’ Bullock said. ‘What are the fundamental constituents of the universe? How did galaxies emerge after the big bang? How do astrophysical observations influence our understanding of particle physics?’
In order to tackle these difficult questions, UCI researchers will collaborate with experts in different fields, including astrophysics and high-energy physics.
According to Bullock, the center hopes to involve a large number of researchers and bring together astronomers and astrophysicists to share information to solve the mysteries of the universe.
The center will be a subunit in the Department of Physical Sciences.
The center’s staff is comprised of 23 UCI faculty members, including postdoctoral researchers, cosmology graduate students and undergraduate students working on senior research projects.
One of the goals of the researchers is to understand the existence and importance of dark matter in the formation of the universe.
‘Dark matter is an unknown form of matter that we believe binds galaxies together,’ Bullock said. ‘We think it makes up roughly 25 percent of the matter density of the universe and there is more dark matter in the universe than there is normal matter. It seems to be a major constituent of the universe that we don’t understand.’
The particles in the universe are a key component to understanding the fundamental nature of matter and distant galaxies and universes.
‘We have a pretty good idea that some 95 percent of the universe is made of particles we don’t know about,’ Bullock said.
To help define these galaxies, members of the center will be involved in projects that will focus on understanding these astrophysical objects. Cosmologists are concerned with the structure of the universe as well as the nature of dark matter and dark energy. They hope to understand the evolutionary theory and to solve the mysteries of the galaxies.
‘Some of the techniques researchers will use involve some of the world’s largest telescopes like the neutrino telescopes orbiting the earth, using super computer simulations and cosmic ray detectors that detect high energy particles,’ Bullock said.
The center will also work closely with nearby observatories and research facilities.
The prospect of UCI’s involvement in cutting-edge cosmological research excited some students.
‘It’s really interesting that UCI is going to have a center to understand what else is in the universe,’ said Tammy Salam, a fifth-year sociology major. ‘I really think it’s important to explore what’s out there.’
Some students are unenthusiastic about the center due to lack of publicity.
‘Well, I haven’t heard much about this,’ said fourth-year physics major Nate Brown. ‘It really doesn’t strike my fancy that much, but I guess if I read more into it, I’d become more interested.’
Research in the center began last month. Members include physics and astronomy assistant professors Elizabeth Barton, James Bullock, Asantha Cooray and Manoj Kaplinghat.