News Writing

Guest lecturer opens seams of Milky Way Galaxy

An astrophysicist reveals intergalactic phenomenon to KU physics students.

Addison Lake
Oct. 27, 2016

An astrophysicist led KU students and faculty through a game of hide and seek with supermassive black holes on Monday, Oct. 24.

Stéphanie Juneau presented her research on the elusive nature of black holes hidden within the center of many galaxies as a part of KU’s physics department’s weekly seminars. Nearly 75 physics students and faculty attended the seminar in Malott Hall.

I’m looking at galaxies with black holes, and I want to understand what the black hole is doing,” Juneau said.

She explained how black holes are hard to see because light cannot escape them, so astrophysicists use other types of waves to find them, like X-rays and infrared light.

Juneau received a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2011, where she met Gregory Rudnick, current physics and astronomy professor at KU.

“I was not planning on doing astrophysics specifically,” Juneau said. “I’ve always been very interested in all sciences, very curious in nature and wanting to understand how things work and the how the universe works.”

In college, Juneau operated a telescope in western Canada, which is where her love for astrophysics began, she said.

“It felt like my world was expanding from being my little world on the earth to this giant world before my eyes,” Juneau said.

From there, she conducted research at a French national science commission for five years, and is now transitioning to a national astronomy council in Tucson, Ariz.

For those not educated in this field, astrophysics is the study of the laws of physics applied to outer space. Juneau studies galaxy formation and evolution. Recently, she observed active galactic nuclei, the center of many galaxies, which she believes to be supermassive black holes.

During her research, Juneau used a telescope in southern Chile that can identify alternative types of waves necessary to see black holes. The technology used to explore space is often transferred to advances in modern medicine, Juneau said, like cancer research. This transfer of technology is one of two reasons she believes astrophysics affects everyone, even the average KU student. The second reason to study the galaxies she said is human nature.

As human beings we are naturally curious,” Juneau said. “We are curious about our origins, where we come from where we are, [and] how things work… So [astrophysics] is really a way to build our history from the beginning of the universe to now.”

After Juneau explained her research regarding black holes at the center of galaxies, KU professor John Ralston chimed in with, “I don’t know if I buy it.” Ralston often asks tedious questions at these weekly seminars, Rudnick said. Juneau continued her presentation with a chuckle and, “Challenge accepted.”

Scientists like to challenge each other sometimes,” Juneau said. “To me, that’s not a problem at all. I don’t take these things personally. I actually like that. I like having to prove a point or arguing about something.”

Juneau concluded her presentation with a smile and, “The future is bright. Of course, it always is.”


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