SOLVE magazine Issue 02 2021 | Page 19

SPACE challenges . Like all science it has to be a constant debate ,” she says . “ It ’ s not a faith . You need to question … and anything new is going to be questioned even harder because no one has seen it before .
“ So you are forced to ask ‘ Am I as right as I think ?’ This pushes you to further examine your theories … which is actually good . My model will always be challenged as more data is collected , and I can ’ t wait . That ’ s my world . Then one day I will retire and someone else will carry on my work . That ’ s science .” Astrophysics combines physics , chemistry and maths . It is not about stargazing through telescopes , but working with big data using supercomputers .
A pioneer in her field , Professor Maraston has advanced humanity ’ s understanding of what her University of Portsmouth colleague , Professor Bob Nichol ( Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation ), calls “ the universe ’ s most complex objects ; namely galaxies full of different stars , all evolving differently over billions of years ”.
Professor Maraston is studying the biggest galaxies , which seem to have been the first to form soon ( about one billion years ) after the Big Bang . This is important research because it has been shown that big galaxies are produced by gravitational collapse , but it has also been calculated that there is not enough matter in the Universe for this to be the whole story . The mystery has been ‘ parked ’ in the theorised existence of ‘ dark matter ’, something we have yet to be able to see , but know it has to exist .
Professor Maraston ’ s models assist this research by making sense of light emissions from galaxies that existed billions of years ago . Her lay explanation goes like this : “ Suppose you have a row of lamps and you move away from them . At some point you won ’ t see the individual lamps , just the pattern of the lights . A galaxy is like this . It contains billions of stars . You would never have any chance , with any type of telescope , to resolve the individual components . But what you get is the sum of their light .
“ I calculate models that explain the sum of light under different assumptions . Observational astronomers then use my model and compare it with their data . These comparisons give you the physics of the galaxies , an estimate of how many stars they comprise , how big they are and how old they are . The latter is crucial , as this will tell us when they formed in the lifetime of the universe , and therefore their chemistry .”
Time machine It is this chemistry that makes astrophysics , in effect , a time machine .
The further we look in space , the further back in time we are looking . That is because of the speed at which light travels and the fact the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang . Distant galaxies provide a picture of the distant past .
Earth ’ s home , the Milky Way , was created 10 billion years after the Big Bang
Our Sun is just one of more than 100 billion stars in the Milky Way – and the Milky Way is one of over 100 million galaxies in the known universe
A car ride to the nearest star at 70 miles per hour would last more than 356 billion years
In astrophysics , you can ’ t fear challenges . Like all science it has to be a constant debate .
– Claudia Maraston
By exploring this history and opening the way for others to pursue their own research using her models , Professor Maraston is taking us closer to understanding the hows and whys of life and the universe .
It is a big subject . “ Can it get any bigger ?” she quips with the irrepressible humour and candour for which she is known . “ I get a headache if I think too deeply .”
This is not helped by astrophysics being in a near constant state of flux – new possibilities opening up , new questions branching off and taking science into whole new areas .
Professor Maraston loves it : “ Surprises come every day .”
It is this attitude that infuses her work with a cheerful iconoclasm . She wants to break things constructively and make something better from the pieces . Why ? Because she knows we do not have all the answers and she cannot abide complacency . “ In my research I have always tried to push borders and go against the mainstream . I like to do science this way ; it ’ s more fun , it ’ s more challenging . You can inspire a new generation ,” she says . “ And you can inspire new science .”
Professor Claudia Maraston
Professor Maraston undertook her PhD in astrophysics at the University of Bologna ( Italy ), followed by postdoctoral fellow studies at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich ( Germany ) and the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics ( MPE ) in Garching ( Germany ).
In 2005 she was awarded a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship ( now the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship ) at the University of Oxford . In 2007 she was awarded a Marie Curie Excellence Team Grant with which she joined the University of Portsmouth as Senior Lecturer , Reader in 2009 and Professor since 2014 .
In 2018 Professor Maraston was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society ’ s Eddington Medal “ for investigations of outstanding merit in theoretical astrophysics ”. Past luminaries on this honour roll include theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking .
ISSUE 02 / 2021