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Universal questions

Dec. 7, 2005
By Andrea Gibson

Astronomers ponder how the universe began and how the cosmos creates new stars and galaxies. Chemists develop drugs that could help alleviate the complications of national health problems such as diabetes and cancer while researchers examine why Appalachians may not be able to afford or access such medical treatments. Engineers and scientists study toxins in our air and water and develop new ways to make the Earth cleaner.

These huge initiatives have one seemingly small thing in common: Ohio University researchers are tackling all of these issues right here on campus. While individual scientists and engineers have been involved in such work for more than a decade, a new initiative -- the University Research Priorities Program -- is pulling faculty and students from related fields together to help solve some of greatest questions facing our world today.

Three research priorities are featured in this series about faculty research that benefits the region, state and nation.

Tiny quarks and giant clusters

Photo by Rick FaticaThe miniscule protons, neutrons and electrons we learned about in high school physics classes and the stars we gaze at on clear nights have more in common than you might think. Studies on topics from the tiniest bits of matter to the largest heavenly objects paint a bigger picture of how our universe was created, what in the world we're made of and where the cosmos is heading.

That's the idea behind the new Structure of the Universe project, which received $1.4 million in funding last fall. Ohio University joins major research institutions such as Princeton and Cal Tech in examining the link between the astronomy and physics fields and exploring fundamental issues about our universe.

"At the best universities, clearly they're asking these questions," says Kenneth Hicks, an Ohio University professor of physics who serves as director of the new project.

A key component is a new partnership with the MDM Observatory at Kitt Peak, Ariz., which is owned by the University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Ohio State University and now Ohio University. Though Ohio University is a recent player in the string of observatories along Kitt Peak, it coincidentally played a role in the origin of the site as an astronomical nexus. Indiana University Professor John Irwin originally floated the idea of building a major observatory in southern Arizona at an astronomy conference conducted in Athens in 1951.

inside the MDM ObservatoryThe MDM partnership now allows faculty and student astronomers access to 50 observing nights per year at the facility, which has two telescopes used for research on everything from planets and asteroids to cosmology, says Tom Statler, an associate professor of physics and astronomy and director of the university's Astrophysical Institute.

Ohio University joins the top 30 astrophysics institutes in the nation with this level of telescope access, boosting opportunities for student research and learning.

"This is a way for our students to have direct access to really top-quality instrumentation at one of the best astronomical sites in the United States," Statler says. "It allows them to do things that would be impossible in Ohio."

Back in Athens, physicists and astronomers will investigate fundamental questions about our world, such as what causes the universe to expand and how stars are formed. Hicks offers a specific example: The sun contains 99 percent of all of the matter in our solar system, and yet its interior is impossible to study directly. Instead, physicists simulate nuclear reactions between small bits of matter in the laboratory in hopes of better understanding this massive heavenly body.

"We're focused on the big questions that have been of interest to mankind since the beginning of time," he says.

The researchers, who bring in some $1.7 million in external funding each year from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NASA, already have made a mark on the world of physics and astronomy.

Hicks, for example, is internationally recognized for the discovery of a subatomic particle of matter called the pentaquark, and astronomers have made headlines for scientific findings on black holes, galaxies and galaxy clusters. This fall, the team was joined by a new senior faculty member hired through the University Research Priorities program, Madappa Prakash, the leading expert on neutron stars.

Andrea Gibson is director of research communications at Ohio University.

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Published: Dec 7, 2005 10:55:00 AM
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