Out of this world – Professor Heymans tackles the dark side of the universe

We’re getting very close to the big day now, so as we creep days closer to 1st June, we hear from another fabulous 2018 speaker – Catherine Heymans.

At the tender age of six, Catherine asked her class teacher; “what is the most challenging job in the world?“, to which she replied; “Brain Surgeon or Astrophysicist“. It took a full decade before Catherine decided which of these two career paths she would follow, but follow it she did, proving just how much she enjoys a good challenge.

Since then, Catherine has gone on to become a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in observing the dark side of our Universe, using deep sky observations to test whether we need to go beyond Einstein with our current theory of gravity. As well as a packed academic career, which has involved co-authoring hundreds of articles and journals, and a series of coveted accolades, Catherine is also proud to be mum to three small children.

Catherine Heymans

What is your idea worth doing?

In one year we’ll be opening the domes of a brand new telescope called LSST, the Large Survey Synoptic Telescope. Set upon a remote mountaintop in Chile, LSST is one of the largest telescopes in the world. We will be imaging the entire night sky every three nights for ten years looking for anything that moves; the potential killer asteroids that might one day obliterate planet Earth, for example!

Many of us are expecting, and certainly hoping, that we won’t find any evidence for a future doomsday scenario. Instead, our secret true passion lies in the by-product of our search. By combining ten years worth of images we will create the deepest view of the Universe ever seen, allowing us to look back in time to the first galaxies ever created. What we can see, however, only accounts for less than 5% of the Universe. The other 95% is dark and invisible and the only reason why we know it is there is because of the effect it has on the things we can see.

To be honest, we simply cannot explain this dark side of our Universe with our current understanding of science. You might view this as a major failing of us as scientists, but I see it as a wonderful opportunity for discovery.

How did you come up with your idea?

After challenging my childhood school teacher to determine what the most challenging job in the world was, I began my journey to where I am today. By the time I had acquired a degree in Astrophysics, I found myself asking my course Professor a very similar question; “What is the most challenging Ph.D. topic in the world?“, to which they replied; “finding out why the expansion of our Universe is accelerating“. My very first thought was, “accelerating??” Now at this point in my career, I knew that our Universe was a strange place, filled with a mysterious invisible substance called dark matter that whose gravity determined where and when the galaxies, that we can see, would form. I also knew that everywhere astronomers looked, those galaxies were moving away from us in an ever-expanding Universe whose motion had been kick-started by the Big Bang. Up until this point, I had, however, felt quite grounded in the thought that one day, gravity would conquer all. The Universe would collapse back in on itself, re-starting an eternal cycle of explosive death and fiery re-birth that seemed to gel with my philosophy at that time. In this brief career-defining moment, my Professor had changed my entire worldview.

Accelerated expansion meant a Universe that carried on growing forever, where the stars would slowly burn their last reservoirs of fuel and one-by-one the galaxies would switch off their lights leaving a very cold, sad and empty Universe. This simply made no sense! What possible source of energy could there be to fuel this ever-increasing expansion of the Universe? I’ve been trying to answer this question for my entire career, developing new ideas, technology and instrumentation to confront a range of different theories.

How is your idea going to change the way we look at the world?

When you don’t understand something as gargantuan as 95% of the Universe it means you’re missing something – a key piece of the puzzle.

We simply cannot explain the observations we make with our current understanding of science. It’s very widely believed that our final understanding of the dark side of our universe will require a revolution in fundamental physics that will forever change our view of the cosmos and the world around us.

Who has inspired you in your field of work?

There was a teacher… there always is. This particular teacher spent one summer at a teacher training camp in NASA and returned brimming with enthusiasm about the Universe. Whenever school physics got too boring, we’d ask her to tell us something about Space. Astrophysics became the fun and thrilling part of science lessons and that excitement and wonder still lives with me to this very day.

Who else are you excited to see at TEDxGlasgow 2018?

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Karen Dunbar – How to use humour as a tool, not a weapon.

Catherine and our 19 other TEDxGlasgow 2018 speakers are warming up for their talks on 1st June. So, if you’d like to be there to join us in this voyage into the dark side of the universe, make sure you get your ticket before its too late.

Tickets are available here.

  • Written by Cat Leaver
  • Posted on May, 9 2018

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