April 23, 2020
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Not many professors can say that their students are immersed in research aimed at “the most important outstanding problems about the nature of reality.” But that’s no exaggeration for Tom Giblin, associate professor of physics, whose cosmology students use cutting-edge techniques in computational physics to fashion simulations probing how matter and energy interact in their most basic forms.
With powerful software that was developed at Kenyon, student researchers are creating models that may yield insights about the very early universe, the infinitesimally brief but immensely consequential moments just after the big bang. Some of their work involves gravitational radiation — a theorized phenomenon for which actual evidence only recently has been discovered — and could influence the development of the next generation of gravitational-wave detectors.
“Tom told us, early on, ‘You have to learn to problem-solve, because this hasn’t been done before,’ ” said Eva Nesbit ’16, a physics major from Columbus, Ohio, who focuses on gravitational waves and “inflation,” the exponential expansion of space in the early universe. “With homework problem sets, there’s always a right answer. Here, it’s different. You might choose a wrong path, but you have to go down it.”
The Kenyon research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Giblin, the Harvey F. Lodish Faculty Development Chair in the Natural Sciences, won a three-year $120,000 grant from the NSF. The grant, his second from the NSF, also will help the College purchase two supercomputers to run the complex simulations. And it will fund a “science Saturday” program for area middle school students that Giblin initiated several years ago. Kenyon students work with the middle school students in the program, which includes demonstrations and hands-on activities.
The grant will enable Giblin’s students to continue to present their findings at an annual summer conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of only two other institutions (including Dartmouth) where undergraduates do research of this kind. “There were awesome people there,” said Nesbit, who presented this summer. “The scientist who came up with the original theory of inflation [MIT professor Alan Guth] was sitting there listening to my talk!”
The Kenyon research deals with fundamental physics entailing energies higher than those achievable in particle accelerators. “So we use the universe as a lab,” Giblin said, explaining that the simulations yield predictions that can be compared to actual observations as they emerge, and that can, in turn, help guide those observations. Kenyon’s cosmology group is one of the few in the world doing such simulations.
“It’s a very exciting time to be in this field,” said mathematics and physics major Tim Scully ’15 of Allentown, Pa., who studies another early-universe phenomenon, “reheating,” and who uses the simulation software, called GABE, for Grid and Bubble Evolver. (Giblin wrote the code several years ago with Hillary Child ’13, a physics and modern languages and literature double major from Chicago, and Tate Deskins ’13, a mathematics and physics double major from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. They “reverse-engineered” the name to honor Giblin’s dog at the time, Gabriel.)
Also using GABE is Furqan Dar ’16, a mathematics and physics major from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, whose research on binary stars and “new massive gravity” may have implications for understanding dark energy. “The potential to solve the dark energy problem — it’s a pretty big thing,” he said.
Kenyon students “really step up to the challenge,” Giblin said. “What I’m asking them to do is not easy. They work on the big ideas as well as on the technical level. They’re as successful as the best students in the country.”
About the feature photo: A visual representation of a phase transition that occurred in the early universe that shows, from left to right, regions of the universe cooling, expanding and creating turbulent flow in the matter and energy content. Image courtesy of James Mertens, Case Western Reserve University, and Tom Giblin, Phys. Rev. D 90, 023532 (2014).