View to a cosmic thrill

A visit to busy UCD astrophysicists followed the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever seen


It’s the cosmic question that has puzzled minds since time began: what do astrophysicists do all day? Somehow you imagine the typical day of an astrophysicist would be somewhat elevated above the humdrum daily lives of the rest of us earthlings. They wouldn’t be bothering with such earthbound concepts as committee meetings, funding presentations or the specific gravity of the canteen coffee, would they?

I’ve been dispatched to the College of Physics in UCD to spend the day with Prof Lorraine Hanlon and her team, and maybe even join in with their work.

Prof Hanlon studies gamma ray bursts – in fact, she’s one of the world’s leading authorities on GRBs, as they call them round here. So, I’ll be working with deadly gamma rays – if I suddenly turn a bright shade of chartreuse, or develop the uncanny ability to shoot heat-rays out of my eyes, well, it’s worth it in the name of science.

Unbearable lightness of gamma rays
I needn’t worry – the gamma ray bursts Prof Hanlon and her team study emanate from so far away, they wouldn’t make a gnat glow. That doesn’t make them any less powerful – in fact, gamma ray bursts are the highest-energy phenomena in the universe.

When a very large star collapses, it releases a super-concentrated burst of gamma rays which can be detected by earth-orbiting telescopes such as Nasa’s Fermi Large Area Telescope. These events are happening billions of light-years away; if one were to happen within, say, 3,500 light-years of earth, it would strip away our ozone layer and leave us all to fry.

A star explodes somewhere in the visible universe roughly once a day, so I’m hoping one will go kaboom sometime during my shift with the stargazers – though not within sizzling distance. If you’re not reading this, however, we may already be cosmic fondue.

Turns out I’ve arrived at a good time. Just four days previously, the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever seen was detected by Nasa’s Fermi and Swift space telescopes. Not only was it the most high-energy GRB ever seen, it also had the longest duration, remaining visible as gamma-ray light for more than half a day. GRB130427A (named for the date of its detection) was only about 3.6 billion light years away – pretty close in astronomical terms. The GRB has long since tailed off, but the buzz can still be felt through the entire astrophysics community.

Prof Hanlon, a cheerful, unboffinlike figure, greets me at the Science Centre. In the common-room, I meet some of her team, including Sheila McBreen, Suzanne Foley, Alexei Ulyanov and Martin Topinka. Everyone looks surprisingly normal – think I expected to meet the cast of The Big Bang Theory. The conversation, however, is anything but normal. Where other canteens would ring with chat about last night’s telly or Kim Kardashian’s chihuahua, the topics of conversation here include multiverses, bosons and dark matter.

We visit one of the labs, where Hanlon and her team are developing a gamma ray detector module for use on one of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) orbiting telescopes. This kind of technological development is vital to ensure continued funding for Hanlon’s research.

Along the way, we stop at an impressive display: a 1:4 scale model of the XMM-Newton orbiting telescope, donated by the European Space Agency, of which Ireland has been a member since 1975.

I spend the next couple of hours ‘working’ with some of Hanlon’s researchers, which entails looking over their shoulders while they do some very complicated-looking stuff on their computers. Suzanne Foley is completing a paper on her research into terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs. That’s right. Gamma-rays from earth. At first, no one could work out where these faint gamma-ray bursts were coming from. Then they found the source: thunderstorms. And you were worried about getting hit by lightning.

Antonio Martin-Carillo is sifting through data from the record-breaking gamma ray burst. Or, I should say, joyously diving through it. Because of its proximity and duration, GRB130427A has provided enough information to keep Antonio – and lots of his colleagues – busy for months.

Scintillating stuff
After lunch, the team gather for a meeting to discuss progress on the gamma ray detector module they are developing for ESA. There’s still some work to be done on the scintillator cube, a crystal-type yoke that emits photons when hit by gamma rays, allowing scientists to measure the energy of the gamma ray (keep up at the back, there).

You only get one shot at a project like this, so they have to get it 100 per cent right. I look at the schematic on the overhead projector screen – it could have been beamed down by a superior alien intelligence, for all I know.

Somewhere among all this research and development, the team members still have to find time to do some lecturing. Hanlon and McBreen are also busy developing teaching modules for a new Masters Programme in Space Science & Technology, starting in September. I must say I’m tempted to sign up myself.

At the end of my day peering into deep space, I don’t feel any ill-effects from gamma-rays, but I do feel all a-glow from spending eight hours on the astrophysics plane.

Letting sparks fly: the alchemy of art and science
Along the corridors of the Science Building are mind-blowing portraits of some of the students and researchers who work in the Science Building. I’m about to enter the wormhole that connects art and science in UCD.

“It used to be all black-and-white portraits of beardy professors,” explains Hanlon. “We wanted to put up artwork that would illustrate the research we are doing, and make it feel more modern and engaging.”

There’s a “memorial” to quantum physics student John Eves, who appears to have died on two separate occasions in two alternate universes, although in this universe he is actually alive and well.

There’s also an inverted portrait of Dr Brian Vohnsen, head of UCD’s optical imaging group. “Turn your head upside down and look at it,” says Hanlon. Wow – talk about trompe l’oeil.

The artist, Emer O’Boyle, was commissioned to create these portraits, and found herself caught in the gravitational pull of the science world. She’s now head of UCD’s artist-in-residence programme.

Later in the day, I accompany Hanlon and O’Boyle to a presentation given by three of the artists-in-residence to the school’s vice-president of research, Des Fitzgerald.

The artists – Emer Finucane, Mark Cullen and Siobhán McDonald – are taking concepts from the world of science, and transforming them into compelling works of art. Now that’s what I call alchemy. The idea, says Hanlon, is to bring science into the wider community, so it’s not perceived as existing in its own little universe.

Another scheme, Tunnelling Art and Science, regularly brings students from NCAD into the Science Building to get the creative sparks flying.