Astrophysicist Louise Edwards, BSc ’01, was one of the first Black Canadians to earn a PhD in physics. She’s an expert on the evolution of galaxies, her face has appeared on a Canadian stamp—and she’s only getting started.
Louise Edwards fell in love with the skies as a girl, staring up at the stars on the back porch with her father. “I was born and raised in Victoria, and have real strong distinct memories of hanging out with my dad on our back porch with our telescope set up. I guess it was my grandfather’s telescope,” she says.
Later, she visited the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory with her science class at Reynolds Secondary School. “I saw Saturn with the ring for the first time with my own eyes through that telescope. I still remember that, viscerally.”
Her parents were both high-school teachers—her father taught math and French; her mother taught biology and English. Academics and science were revered in their Quadra Village household. But Edwards’ fascination with space was also fuelled by her love of science fiction and pondering how much of it could be true.
She inhaled the works of Robert Heinlein, a novelist known for scientific accuracy in his fiction, and watched Star Trek: Next Generation. She wanted to know if phenomena like photon torpedoes or time travel could be real. “If you talk to most physicists, they probably love science fiction,” she observes.
Edwards attended UVic after high school in part because she got a scholarship, was able to live at home and could afford to go. It was also a prime place to study the stars. “UVic just happened to be one of the best places to do astronomy,” she recalls, noting the observatory was right up the road. Edwards earned a Bachelor of Science in physics and astronomy with a minor in mathematics from UVic in 2001.
Her love of space then led her to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax for a master’s in astronomy, then onto Laval University in Quebec for a PhD in physics—she was in French immersion classes in Victoria, which allowed her to study at a French-speaking university. She is noted online as being the first Black Canadian to earn a PhD in astronomy, and while this is tricky to verify, she is most certainly among the first.
Edwards is currently an associate professor of physics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, a small city halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Before joining Cal Poly in 2016, Edwards lectured in the astronomy department at Yale University and was an assistant professor of physics at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB.
While at UVic, she was part of the co-op program, which set her on a lifelong course of doing hands-on research. In fact, she started the groundwork of the research into galaxies that she continues today. UVic professors Ann Gower and Arif Babul were important influences and astronomer Dr. John Hutchings, an affliate of the National Research Council of Canada’s Victoria-based Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre, was an early mentor. They worked together at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for a co-op term.
“He was my first research mentor and had a huge influence. He was really great. He was so laid back,” Edwards says. Hutchings and Edwards wrote a paper together, working on research involving galaxy clusters. Hutchings told her that astronomy was his hobby, his true passion in life—not just his job. “He had a wonderful outlook,” she recalls.
Hutchings remembers Edwards as a star student. “She was very lively, very enthusiastic, hardworking. We wrote a paper together and she did a lot of the work. It was a good term,” says Hutchings, a retired UVic adjunct professor of astronomy and physics, who has published more than 400 scientific articles.
You don’t need to speak with Edwards long on a Zoom call to see that she’s passionate and driven. Edwards is married to Mark Beasley-Murray, an English as a Second Language teacher, and they have a two-year-old son, Skyler, and a five-year-old daughter, Willow. Edwards, as a working parent with young children, seems as if her sci-fi books imparted a secret to super-human energy. But the real reason is far more simple.
“I love my job, OK?” she says, leaning forward and clasping her hands. “I love it.”
Edwards also loves her hometown of Victoria—and returns to visit whenever she can. Her father, whose family roots are in Trinidad and Tobago, has passed away, but her mother still lives in Quadra Village. Edwards has three accomplished siblings, who live in different parts of Canada. Victoria was “super not diverse” when she was growing up, Edwards recalls—though she says that is changing.
There are still very few people of colour working in astrophysics. At every stage of her journey, Edwards has worked to engage and mentor students to help improve diversity in her field, including through advocacy groups. She is also involved in a summer program with Yale professor Meg Urry that includes diversity and inclusivity training for students alongside astrophysics—so they better understand the barriers and how to overcome them.
Meanwhile, Canada’s physics field is still largely male and white, a 2021 survey shows. CanPhysCounts led a national equity and inclusion survey of 3,000 people, including undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, faculty, members of research institutes, and industry and govern¬ment workers. Preliminary data from the study, released in March 2021, showed only one per cent of respondents identified as Black.
Edwards stresses that while having an instructor who looks like you can be encouraging, any educator can help support students of colour. A National Science Foundation study suggested it’s most important that educators be willing to mentor students effectively and to care about them. Educators can also research organizations and be prepared to help connect students of colour with them—for example, the US-based National Society for Black Physicists.
“First of all, it is important that there’s space for women and people of colour in STEM. Get to know the societies, so that you can mention them to your classes or to your research students in general and get the word out, so people who can use those connections know about them.”
Edwards is an expert in the formation and evolution of Brightest Cluster Galaxies. A galaxy is a collection of stars, dust, gas and dark matter. Brightest Cluster Galaxies are particularly lacking in gas and dust—they basically have only old stars. “Sometimes we call them ‘old, red and dead,’” says Edwards, noting that stars redden as they age. The age of old stars can help determine the age of the universe—and if researchers see red ones, they’ve found something really old. Astronomers want to know—if these galaxies are old, were they the first galaxies? Studying how galaxies evolve, and galaxy clusters, can help determine the properties of the universe.
Edwards is poised to embark on an exciting new project in northern Chile. She’s part of a team of researchers testing new technology at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. For the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, an 8.4-metre telescope with a novel three-mirror design will be positioned on a mountain top to take pictures of the sky every few minutes. The 10-year project will produce a massive amount of astronomical data and result in the deepest, widest image of the universe to date. It is expected to produce 500 petabytes of data, the estimated equivalent of 10 billion filing cabinets of information.
Edwards has been selected as one of the first 300 people to test the platform using simulated data, which will help her form a research project to work on, so she can jump right in when the telescope is live in two years. Since she is part of commissioning team, she will travel to Chile in the coming months to make sure everything works. Her whole family will go along for the trip. Fortunately, her husband, Beasley-Murray, whom she met while at Yale, is fluent in Spanish. He also does the bulk of the daily child care, allowing her the space to pursue her passions of research and teaching.
Her days as an astronomer are full and busy. She savours the sunny weather in San Luis Obispo, a place Oprah referred to as “America’s Happiest City.” Edwards and her young family live just outside the Cal Poly campus in faculty housing. She still enjoys science-fiction books and films when she can. (She gives the movie Interstellar two thumbs up. “It’s so well done!”) But for now, her life is sharply focused on two themes. “All of my time is work and family—and that’s perfect right now,” says Edwards. “It’s the perfect balance.”
Young Jupiter likely gobbled up millions of planetoids – The Weather Network
New research suggests that Jupiter contains the remnants of numerous planetoids that it consumed as it grew in the early solar system.
Jupiter is the largest and most massive planet in our solar system, tipping the cosmic scales at over 317 times the mass of Earth. Most of its bulk is made up of just two elements — hydrogen and helium. However, a small percentage of the planet is composed of heavier elements, all of which astronomers group together into the category of metals.
This artist impression shows dark scars in Jupiter’s clouds due to shards of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacting the planet in 1994. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/NASA/ESA
This same distinction is used in stellar astronomy, where a star is described as having a specific metallicity, which refers to the amount of stuff in the star that is not hydrogen or helium.
New research has used data from NASA’s Juno probe to investigate Jupiter’s metallicity.
As Juno orbits around Jupiter, it makes periodic close passes over the planet’s cloud-tops. During each of these passes, the spacecraft keeps careful record of the gravitational pull it experiences due to the material underneath it. This gives researchers an idea of exactly how much stuff is under Jupiter’s clouds in different regions of the planet.
Using this data, an international team led by Yamila Miguel, from the Dutch national expertise institute for scientific space research (SRON) and the Leiden Observatory, constructed computer models of Jupiter’s interior to account for what Juno recorded.
Their study revealed some unexpected details about the massive gas giant.
This view of Jupiter’s cloud tops was taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it made its 31st close-pass around the planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, processed by citizen scientist Tanya Oleksuik (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Firstly, the distribution of the metals within Jupiter is not uniform. Instead, they are more concentrated the deeper into the planet you go. While heavier elements do tend to sink towards a planet’s core, this discovery is unusual because it was assumed that the motions of Jupiter’s atmosphere would cause the metals to be more evenly distributed.
“Earlier we thought that Jupiter has convection, like boiling water, making it completely mixed,” Miguel said in a SRON press release. “But our finding shows differently.”
Secondly, the total amount of Jupiter’s metal content is somewhere between 3 to 9 per cent of the entire planet, or roughly equivalent to 11-30 times the mass of Earth. That’s a lot of heavy elements for the planet to consume in a relatively short time.
“There are two mechanisms for a gas giant like Jupiter to acquire metals during its formation: through the accretion of small pebbles or larger planetesimals,” Migel said.
Planetesimals (aka planetoids) are solid chunks of rock and/or ice that formed in the early solar system. This includes asteroids and comets larger than 1 kilometre across, but smaller than 100 km. Anything larger would be an ’embryonic planet’ or ‘protoplanet’, while objects smaller than 1 km would be considered ‘pebbles’.
Watch below: NASA Juno spots exotic SHALLOW LIGHTING on Jupiter
According to Migel, once a ‘baby’ planet grows massive enough, its gravity tends to snag the smaller pebbles and fling them out of the way. Thus, by the time Jupiter accumulated enough mass to develop its hydrogen-helium atmosphere, its own gravity would have blocked it from consuming these tiny objects.
However, as the researchers note in the paper, their results
indicate that Jupiter continued to accumulate heavy elements, in large amounts, while its hydrogen-helium envelope was still growing. So, a significant amount of the planet’s metals had to come from larger objects.
“Planetesimals are too big to be blocked, so they must have played a role,” Migel said.
So, how many planetesimals has Jupiter eaten?
If we use some typical asteroid masses from NASA, to account for up to 30 Earth-masses worth of metals, Jupiter would have had to gobble up somewhere between a few hundred million larger ones to billions of smaller ones!
Five planets are lining up in the sky in June and will peak tonight. Here's how to see it. – CBS News
Five planets are moving into a rare alignment, which will be visible from Earth this week. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are lining up — in that order — for the first time since December 2004. On Friday, June 24, the phenomenon will be the most visible to stargazers.
While it is common to see a conjunction of three planets close together, seeing five is rare, according to Sky & Telescope. The planets are lining up in their natural order from the Sun, which is also remarkable, says the science magazine published by American Astronomical Society.
The five so-called “naked-eye” planets were visible beginning on June 3 and 4, and the lineup could be seen with binoculars — but only for about half an hour, before Mercury was lost in the glare of the sun.
But on June 24, viewing will be optimal. Even if the distance between Mercury and Saturn increases, it’s getting easier to spot Mercury, so it is getting progressively easier to see all five planets, Diana Hannikainen, observing editor of Sky & Telescope, told CBS News via email.
Hannikainen said the sky on the morning of the 24th “will present a delightful sight” because the waning crescent moon will also join the procession between Venus and Mars.
The planets should be visible on the days leading up to this. Sky & Telescope says the best time to see the line up on June 24 is 45 minutes before sunrise. It should be visible on the eastern horizon.
Four of the naked-eye planets have been lining up in the for the past few months, according to NASA. But over the next few months, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and Venus will spread out. By September, Venus and Saturn will no longer be visible to most observers.
Another astronomical phenomenon will be visible in June: the M13 globular star cluster, a tightly packed spherical collection of stars. The M13, also known as the Hercules Cluster, contains thousands of stars, which are thought to be around 12 billion years old — almost the age of the universe itself, NASA says.
Clear skies across mid-Island allowing for unobstructed view of rare planetary alignment – Nanaimo News NOW
No special equipment is needed to spot the stellar phenomena, with all being easily bright enough to be visible with the naked eye.
Arkos said they’ll even be visible in more populated city areas, although he suggested getting away from light pollution for the best effect.
“Just before the sun comes up is when you have your best chance to catch all of these planets,” Arkos added. “The trickiest one is going to be Mercury because it’s very close to the sun in the sky so you have to wait literally until the sun is just about to rise to catch a glimpse of Mercury in the glow of the sun.”
The event peaks ahead of sunrise on Friday, meaning those wanting to catch a glimpse should set an alarm for 4 a.m. and be in position by 4:30 a.m. looking eastward.
A clear view of the sky to the horizon from the northeast to southeast is key.
With little cloud in the forecast, stargazers will have the opportunity to see variations of the alignment with the moon until June 27th.
The planetary alignment will be visible in varying degrees until July 6 when Mercury will disappear in the light of the sun.
“You’ll see them shifting as time goes on because of course they move at different rates in the sky so they won’t maintain that particular configuration exactly, it’ll change over time,” Arkos said.
Following this planetary alignment event, the attention of Arkos and his fellow astronomers turns to the James Webb deep space telescope, due to release its first official images on July 12.
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