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UW Professor Receives $205,000 DOE Grant to Study High Energy Physics

August 10, 2018
man standing with screens on either side of him
Adam Myers, a UW associate professor of physics and astronomy, recently was awarded a $205,000 DOE grant to study cosmic high energy physics. (UW Photo)

A University of Wyoming associate professor of physics and astronomy has received a Department of Energy (DOE) grant to study cosmic high energy physics.

Adam Myers, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, recently received a $205,000 DOE grant for his project, titled “eBOSS and DESI: LSS Catalogs, Targeting and Spectroscopic Contaminants.” The grant, announced July 30 by the DOE’s Office of High Energy Physics, runs through April 30, 2021.

“Cosmic high energy physics is really the study of the stuff of which our universe is made, and how that stuff moves through time and space,” Myers says. “My particular subfield -- cosmology -- is the study of the universe, typically on the largest scales, in order to ask questions like ‘What is the universe made of?’ ‘How big is the universe?’ ‘What is the shape of the universe?’ and ‘How does the universe move?’”

“Cosmology attempts to understand the most basic constituents of the universe, such as matter and energy, and how they interact,” he adds. To achieve these goals, much of his work involves helping to make and study 3-D maps of the sky -- the largest maps that humankind has ever made.

Under the DOE grant, Myers will use the Extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (eBOSS) and the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) to map the universe by studying galaxies and quasars -- luminous galaxies with a central, active black hole -- to look for a “slight excess” in the numbers of these objects on a specific-size scale.

This excess is a remnant of sound waves bouncing around in the early cosmos when the universe was still hot enough for matter and energy to be coupled together, Myers says. This sound-wave remnant is generally called a baryon acoustic oscillation.

“We know the scale of this sound wave at the moment that the expanding universe cooled to the point that energy and matter decoupled because we observe it in a remnant of the energy called the cosmic microwave background,” Myers says. “As the baryon acoustic oscillation is present at the moment that matter and energy decoupled, it also is imprinted on all of the matter in the universe from which galaxies and quasars eventually emerge.”

Because the size of the baryon acoustic oscillation is known, researchers can look for it in maps of the universe. It can be located in the distribution of galaxies and quasars at different distances corresponding to different times in the past.

“If the scale of the baryon acoustic oscillation suddenly changes, then the universe must have moved toward or away from us,” Myers says. “The scale of the baryon acoustic oscillation is very large, almost a billion light years. We need to construct very large maps of the sky to study it.”

Myers will work to develop and complete targeting software for the DESI survey. This software is critical to determine where in the sky DESI will place fibers to obtain spectra of all of the target classes necessary to achieve DESI’s goal of constraining dark energy through most of cosmic history.

“We really don't know the true nature of dark energy. It could be some strange, quantum stuff or an exotic material that pushes other material away -- a sort of anti-gravity,” Myers says. “Or, it could be that we don't understand gravity on certain extreme scales of time and space. Although we don't know the exact nature of dark energy, it manifests as an acceleration of the expansion of our universe.”

To map the universe, DESI uses robots to place 5,000 optical fibers at very specific locations in the focal plane of a telescope that correspond to the position of an object in the sky. These robots can be reconfigured in under a minute to observe 5,000 new locations.

“The software I help to write for DESI extracts information on billions of stars and galaxies from breaking images of the sky into hundreds of trillions of pixels of information using the equivalent of dozens of years of time on supercomputing systems -- DOE's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center,” Myers says. “So, from a technological perspective, the DESI project is important in helping to push the limits of big data and of engineering design. From the perspective of the importance to humanity, there are few more profound pursuits than looking up at the sky and wondering about the nature of the universe in which we live.”

Under the DOE grant, Myers will be assisted by Brad Lyke, a second-year UW graduate student, from Oceanside, Calif., studying for a Ph.D. in physics; and Alexandra Higley, a UW sophomore, from Parker, Colo., majoring in astronomy and astrophysics, and physics. Until recently, Myers was assisted by Danielle Schurhammer, a recent UW graduate, from Plainview, Minn., with degrees in astronomy and astrophysics, and physics.

Myers has worked in an official capacity for eBOSS since 2013 and for DESI since 2016.

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