Joey Neilsen ’06 is a shooting star in the rarefied air of high-energy astrophysics. No less an authority than NASA has valued his work, awarding him an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship at Boston University. How does it feel to have his name linked to Einstein? “Pretty good,” Neilsen said, chuckling.
The most prestigious in his field, the fellowship seeks to understand the universe through the study of cosmic phenomena such as dark energy and the Big Bang. Neilsen’s particular area of interest is black holes, those mysterious objects that swallow light.
Because black holes are invisible, Neilsen attempts to explain their behavior by using X-ray telescopes to observe the effects they generate in space around them. As gas and dust fall into a black hole, they release energy that comes out as X-rays. “By looking at these X-rays, we can figure out what black holes are doing even though we can’t see them directly,” he said. Lately, Nielsen has been observing the black hole at the center of our galaxy, four millions times as massive as the sun.
The ultimate goal of his research is to answer the big questions posed by NASA’s astrophysics program: How do space, time, matter, and energy behave? How did black holes help us get to where we are today? “Black holes seem to have a significant influence on the way galaxies are formed, and all that energy can play a big role in the evolution of stars and galaxies.”
Nielsen came to Kenyon from St. Louis because the College made him feel wanted. “I remember (Associate Professor of Physics) Paula Turner e-mailed me after my first visit, and stayed in touch throughout my selection process, talking about the physics department and my interest in astronomy. I got the impression Kenyon was really interested in me as a student and person."
“The classes were excellent and the professors gave me such a good foundation in math and physics that I never felt disadvantaged when I decided to go into in astrophysics. I credit Kenyon for a lot of success I’ve had.”
Neilsen earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard and was a postdoctoral associate in High-resolution X-ray Astrophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation at Harvard recently earned him the American Astronomical Society’s High-Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) Dissertation Prize, a rewarding recognition from his peers.