June 14, 2013

Martha Haynes takes alumni on trip through cosmic history

Martha Haynes
Jason Koski/University Photography
Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy Martha Haynes took an alumni audience on a trip through the universe at a Reunion lecture in Goldwin Smith Hall June 7.

Against a backdrop of vivid photographs, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy Martha Haynes took an alumni audience on a trip through the universe at the Reunion 2013 lecture, “Our Cosmic History and a New View of our Origins” in Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall June 7.

Haynes, who joined the Cornell faculty in 1983, works on the cutting edge of galactic exploration, studying the large scale distribution of galaxies in the local universe, especially how the local environment influences galaxy formation and evolution.

“It took until I was 19 years old before I saw the Milky Way,” she told the audience, as she showed palm-tree framed photos of that galaxy taken from the tropical island of Mangaia.

Haynes’ vivid pictures conveyed the vast scale of her research subject, demonstrating that “the universe today contains billions and billions of galaxies; each galaxy contains millions to billions of stars like the sun, and many of those stars have planets, so that each galaxy contains billions and billions of planets.”

Each picture is a snapshot in the history of cosmic time, explained Haynes. “Our cosmological model must explain how the structure developed to look this way, and not something else, and it has to do it in 13.7 billion years – not earlier, not later.”

One important aspect of the way the universe is today is that galaxies like to have neighbors, said Haynes, with a tendency to cluster into groups, clusters and super clusters. “What I do is extra-galactic sociology, to try to understand why it is that galaxies in clusters have a tendency to look red, and galaxies outside of clusters tend to look blue.”

The “stuff” we are made of is an important clue, said Haynes. The very first stars in the universe were made up only of hydrogen and helium. Elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen form in small or large stars, but it takes a supernovae to form cobalt and nickel.

These elements form the cosmic “dust” that is impenetrable to optical telescopes. Fortunately, detectors using infrared and radio frequencies can both detect and penetrate the dust that holds so much information about cosmic origins.

Recent advances in technology are enabling astronomers to push the envelope, and Haynes spoke enthusiastically about CCAT, Cornell’s new, pioneering telescope project. “CCAT will open up the last, largely untapped frontier of ground-based astronomical research,” said Haynes. “CCAT is our dream. Astronomers are always pushing the envelope, and this joint project will take advantage of a boom in detector technology to decode our cosmic history.”

Because water vapor in the atmosphere interferes with the long submillimeter wavelengths CCAT will detect, it’s being built “in the highest, driest place on earth where you can drive a truck,” said Haynes: the Atacama Desert in Chile. Cornell leads the international collaboration and hosts the CCAT project office on the Ithaca campus.

CCAT will have a field of view 30,000 times larger than the ALMA array already in operation nearby, which is designed to deliver very high spatial resolution but in a small field of view; the two telescopes will have an ideal complementarity, she said.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.