Everything we know about the universe is still just a miniscule fraction of what there is to know. Luckily for us, every day innumerable women around the globe push the boundaries of astronomy and astrophysics forward a little further. Here are just a handful of these exceptional scientists.
The dark matter problem is the longest outstanding problem in all of physics.
Katherine Freese is one of the brightest stars (sorry) of dark matter research: the concept that the physics of our universe only works if over 90% of everything is made up of matter and energy we currently have no way of detecting. The invisibility of what she studies has proven to be no obstacle to Freese, who has not only provided astrophysicists across the world with tools to try to detect dark matter, but has also worked with our current limited knowledge to suggest ingenious theories on the fate of life and our universe, and even to postulate the existence of an entirely new type of star, fuelled by dark matter.
The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.
Astrophysics is an intense and difficult subject. There aren’t many people who can successfully translate it into language that the wider population can understand. Janna Levin is one of those gifted people. Made a Guggenheim Fellow for her educational work, she not only works as a science writer but has actively furthered astrophysical research as well. She’s pushed forward our understanding of how black holes work, and helped to make their intangible gravitational waves relatable by expressing them as sound.
My favourite planet is the next planet.
One of the most enduring questions of astronomy (and the X-Files) is “is there life out there?”. Sara Seager has done more than most to help answer that, by helping discover 715 planets that orbit stars other than our own sun. Her goal? To learn about what makes these planets work… and to find planets that could sustain life. Not only has she been part of the team using the Kepler space telescope to discover new planets, but she’s provided groundbreaking research that has helped create new ways of finding out if they’re there at all, using signs of hot gas and reflected light.
We have possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration.
But there’s plenty more to know about planets closer to home. Carolyn Porco is a planetary researcher who has been fundamental to our understanding of the planets of the outer solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Pluto (dodgy planetary status notwithstanding). She currently leads the imaging science team for Cassini: essentially an incredibly advanced probe that orbits planets and moons and notes their characteristics. Her work has given up dozens of unique and exciting observations, but most recently her focus on Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn, has shown a sea of ice geysers that hint at a salty subterranean ocean, that may be our solar system’s best chance of supporting life after Earth.
Heidi Jo Newburg
The Milky Way isn’t just a disc of stars in a flat plane — it’s corrugated.
We all think we know what the Milky Way looks like, but how accurate can we be? Heidi Jo Newburg has shaken up our understanding of our universe and our galaxy – what it looks like, and how it works. From suggesting that the Milky Way is a large galaxy that assimilates other stars and smaller galaxies – or as she puts it, “munching on the little ones” – to supporting Nobel Prize-winning research that demonstrated the universe is expanding faster rather slower, as was previously thought, Newburg is at the forefront of redefining the things we thought we knew.
Recommendations for further reading: http://homepages.rpi.edu/~newbeh/, TED talks (for Carolyn Porco and Sara Seager), The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter by Katherine Freese, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space by Janna Levin.
References include The New York Times, Home Pages, Astronomy Now, TED, Business Insider, Smithsonian Magazine, Symmetry Magazine and Universe Today.
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