Excellent conditions for skiing and supernovae

Julien Guy: supernova cosmologistI'm sitting in the airport right now, passing time as I wait for my flight back to SFO. Looking at the clock now, I see that my jet lag future does not bode well. I awoke at 5:00 AM here and nearly 11 hours later feel like the day is over, yet it is only 7:50 AM in CA.

I spent the last week at a conference in the Italian Alps with about 200 skier/cosmologists. Mornings were spent in the conference hall watching 15 or 25 minute presentations. Afternoons were for the slopes. Evenings were back in the conference hall.

The conference started with supernova talks - I was fourth on the list. Being in the field, I had heard most of the results that were presented in the other talks. Ditto the other attendees' perspectives on my talk. However, there were some new and very promising results from the Supernova Factory.

The supernova factory is a LBNL-based research group that focuses on "nearby supernovae". By nearby, I mean only a few hundred million light years away. These supernovae occur in galaxies that are distant enough to be free of the gravity of the Milky Way and our neighboring galaxies but close enough to observe with smaller telescopes.

The supernovae observed by the SN factory are very bright compared to the supernovae I observe with the Hubble Space Telescope. The supernovae are bright enough to make very precise measurements at each wavelength of the supernova spectrum. Just like my earlier post on spectroscopy, the supernova light is imaged after passing through a prism. These images provide very detailed information about the molecules and atoms that are present in the supernova explosion.


The spectroscopic observations also tell us how one supernova may differ from another. The small variations in type Ia supernovae have been a mystery for quite some time. If we can learn the causes of these variations, these supernovae could be come even more useful for measuring distances in space.

There are several models and theories to explain the differences, but none has been extensively tested. A large number of bright nearby supernovae is required to test these models. Hopefully, a project like the supernova factory will provide that sample. In this conference, they only showed a handful of supernovae. All but one of these supernovae was well-behaved, fitting our current models. The last one differed enormously from the others, but the detailed spectroscopic observations lent evidence as to why this may be the case. The data is still being examined, but I am encouraged by the progress necessary if supernovae are to be used to explain the cosmology of our universe.

The presentations over the next five days covered a very large range of topics. Some conference attendees presented ideas that had never occurred to me. One that I found very interesting was an experiment to model the orbital paths of stars around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. For those patient enough to watch these stars for 15 years, it should be possible to measure the properties of gravity and the black hole itself by looking for deviations in the stars orbits from our current models.

While the talks were very interesting and well-attended, I can't help but comment on the other important side of this conference. That would of course be the skiing. The Europeans really have it right - they chose the site and the schedule with the perfect balance for leisure time. We were only ten miles from the tallest mountain in Europe, within site of the Matterhorn, had perfect snow all week, and had just enough time to enjoy it. I even had a chance to practice my amateur photography on the slopes. Now the next challenge will be to organize a conference in Tahiti!

Kyle S. Dawson is engaged in post-doctorate studies of distant supernovae and development of a proposed space-based telescope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.