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Fall 2013, Volume 18

Campus Currents I Spotlight On Sports I Barry Beat I Features

Dr. Maurizio Giannotti

Seeing Stars

An assistant professor of physics is making breakthroughs in research of massive stars.

By Luke Steinberger

When you sit back and look up on a beautiful starry night, it’s hard to get over the splendor and think about how and why the gaseous bodies millions or billions of miles from earth exist. Some people, however, think deeply about the composition of stars and their life cycles, the long journey from the beginning of a star’s life to its explosive death. These scientists know that understanding the mathematics behind that journey and exploring the complexity of particle physics and stellar evolution have implications about how the universe truly works. Dr. Maurizio Giannotti is one of those people. His recent work focused on the evolution of massive stars, meaning stars about eleven times the mass of the sun. In particular, Dr. Giannotti dedicated himself to studying the potential interaction between electromagnetic fi elds and a hypothetical particle called the axion. Scientists use axions to make predictions about dark matter, one of the major frontiers in understanding the universe and, for the most part, a mystery. Dark matter may not be as immediately apparent to our everyday lives, but that in no way means that it is not important: scientists estimate that dark matter particles constitute more than 80% of the universe.

Dr. Giannotti research focused on the later stages of a star’s life. While a star remains constant for most of its existence, it eventually begins undergoing changes. The change involves the type of chemical transformation that occurs. Initially, a star burns hydrogen into helium, but when the hydrogen runs out the star begins transforming the helium into carbon, and then carbon into oxygen, and so on. This process takes place over billions of years, forcing researchers to find stars that have run out of hydrogen. For Dr. Giannotti’s specific purposes, the star also needed to be at least five times the size of the sun. As if fi nding a star of that mass at a particular stage in its billion-year evolution weren’t enough, Dr. Giannotti and his team also needed small miracles here on earth. That came in the form of a code for stellar evolution made available to the general scientifi c community for the fi rst time in 2010. The code proved so complex that it required a special computer, one with processing capabilities that far exceed the normal laptops seen around campus. Here, Dr. Giannotti enlisted the help of Michael Wise, a lab technician at Barry, and asked him to build a computer smart enough and strong enough to run the code. Wise, essentially on his own, designed the machine, bought the necessary parts, and constructed a computer capable of running the code.

The application of stellar code to massive stars led to the discovery of strongest constraint, or bound. The previous bound was discovered 25 years ago, meaning that researchers for the last 25 years have been using flawed information. The new constraint will change the mathematics used by theoretical physicists and will potentially lead to new and exciting discoveries about our world. While the advanced science behind Dr. Giannotti’s work may be difficult for a layperson to appreciate, Barry University immediately recognized the potential for amazing results. The Department of Physical Sciences eagerly supported his project when he submitted his research proposal, upon invitation, to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest and most respected science and technology institutes in the world. Dr. Giannotti and Wise teamed up with Alexander Friedland, an author at Los Alamos, to write a paper summarizing their findings and the implications for future research, and Barry’s trust in Dr. Giannotti was overwhelmingly rewarded. Dr. Giannotti was invited to a conference in Germany to speak about his results. The paper was published in the prestigious Cornell Journal, and a viewpoint praising the paper and its implications was written by Georg Raffelt, a man recognized as the world leader in the field. In addition to praising the particular findings of the research, Dr. Raffelt celebrated the way Dr. Giannotti and his team exemplified the manner in which stars act as heavenly laboratories, allowing us to understand the majesty and complexity of the world in which we live. Dr. Giannotti, of course, is not satisfied with this one accomplishment. In addition to writing a follow-up on this research, as is customary in the scientific community, Dr. Giannotti plans to delve deeper into the physics behind massive stars. He also plans to ensure more scientists can access the code he developed to continue the research. It’s clear that Dr. Giannotti’s star is on the rise.