Professor Ryan Hickox a leader in astronomical research

by Lucia McGloin | 4/2/15 7:45pm

Gautam Babu ’16 said he was inspired to study astronomy after witnessing physics and astronomy professor Ryan Hickox’s palpable excitement and dedication on the first day of his class. Afterward, he said he knew for sure that he wanted to pursue an astronomy major.

Hickox, who last year became the 20th Dartmouth professor to receive a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, used the $50,000 grant to search for quasars — some of the oldest, most distant and most powerful objects in the universe, which have supermassive black holes in their centers — to better understand the evolution of the universe.

Last December, he published new findings about the star-forming galaxies and interstellar feedback in Nature magazine, in collaboration with an international team of researchers.

Hickox said that the integration of ground-breaking research into his curriculum helps “make the subject come alive for students.” His area of interest, supermassive black holes and galaxies, is a rapidly-changing field with significant advancements made in past five years, he said.

He added that the direct benefit of studying astronomy is its genuine intellectual excitement. Beyond including his own research, Hickox said that he involves other cutting-edge astronomers in his classroom through Skype interviews.

“The very fact that we can look out into the universe and study an object six billion light years away and forming suns every year, with a mass a hundred billion times that of the sun, is intrinsically interesting,” he said. “In a lot of ways, understanding where galaxies comes from answers questions about where we came from.”

Physics and astronomy professor John Thorstensen said that professor Hickox brings a lot of energy to the Dartmouth team, and that “his expertise is much in demand.”

James Geach, a former colleague of Hickox’s at Durham University, lauded Hickox as a researcher who is pushing the field forward.

“[Hickox] is a fantastic scientist, recognized as a world leader in the role of active galactic nuclei in the evolution of galaxies,” he said, echoing Thorstensen’s sentiments. “[He] is bursting with ideas and extremely generous with his time.”

Hickox, a member of the Dartmouth faculty since 2011, said he attempts to answer how the centers of most massive galaxies form. Existing research suggests that at the center of large galaxies — those up to 10 times larger than the Milky Way — dense collections of stars form quickly and simultaneously. He said his latest research specifically inquires into why stars form all at once and how the process of star formation ends.

Hickox said his research shows that gas is indeed being blown out of the system as predicted, but the source of radiation in the system observed is not the black hole but the stars themselves. The recently-formed stars appear to be “blowing” on the gas around them, generating a radiation that pressures gas out of the galaxy, he said. He said that the research challenges the assumption that black holes are always the most important object in galaxy formation and evolution.

Technical constraints pose a challenge to the pursuit of additional research. While a recently constructed telescope — the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array — in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, for example, would facilitate more detailed observations, its southern geography makes the desired system out of range.

Hickox said that his research is universally-accessible because it answers questions that everyone has.

“People want to know about the world in which we live,” Hickox said. “Turns out these galaxies and big black holes are all over the place, quite fascinating objects — we live in one — relevant to us.”

Correction appended:The original version of this article misidentified James Geach as James Leach. The Dartmouth regrets this error.

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