What A UMKC Astronomer's Research On Far-Away Galaxies Says About Chilling Out

Nov 4, 2016

Mark Brodwin won the NASA Group Award for his research on galaxy clusters
Credit courtesy of Mark Brodwin / Janet Rodgers

Astronomer Mike Browdin understands that the immensity of our universe can be intimidating to some people. He gets that people don't think about supernovas and black holes as much as he does, and that it overwhelms them when they try to wrap their heads around it.

"Some people feel that when they are faced with the vastness of the universe and space and time, they feel insignificant," Browdin told Central Standard's Gina Kauffman. "And we are really small compared to that."

Browdin, however, is a nationally-renowned astronomer and physicist who recently won a NASA Group Achievement Award from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for his role on a research team that studied and tracked galaxy clusters as far as 8 billion light-years away. So naturally, he invites people to embrace the size of the universe and their own smallness within it.

"I find it cool. I think it adds a certain perspective that is actually helpful," Browdin says. "I find it actually gives a sense of comfort, because as bad as things can seem to be in your everyday life, in the really large scheme of things, it's not that important."

Browdin, who works as an associate professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, studies galaxy clusters, a group of galaxies that are bound together through gravitational force. The concept is similar to how planets are bound together in a solar system, or how solar systems are bound together in a galaxy. Because galaxy clusters contain several galaxies within them, they are the largest objects in the universe that are held together by gravity.

Browdin worked with a team of five other researchers to learn more about how galaxy clusters deep in the outer edges of the universe were formed. His research helps scientists understand more about the origins of the universe, including what happened between the Big Bang and the creation of our planet, and how our universe became organized the way it is.

"The structures that we see around us don't appear fully formed after the Big Bang," Browdin says. "In fact, after the Big Bang, there's nothing except an almost uniform distribution of matter. Except by chance, because of quantum fluctuations, there are some regions that are a little more dense than others."

The dense piles of matter are the beginning of what we call galaxies.

"Eventually, all the matter is attracted, gravitationally, to the place where there is a little more matter,” Browdin says. “It grows, and eventually collapses gravitationally into galaxies."

Browdin and his team were able to take advantage of new NASA technology to observe how new galaxies and galaxy clusters grow at the edges of the universe, and why they grow where they do.

As someone raised in New York City is different than a person who was raised on a farm in Kansas, Browdin says, the formation of galaxies affect their makeup.

"The basic idea is that the environment affects how you grow," Browdin says. "There's an interaction with galaxies around you, and it changes how you form stars. It changes how you form black holes at the center, how often they go off and how big they are."

That information is vital to learning more about the world around us.

"We want to study galaxy evolution in this extreme environment to better understand how it works in general," he says.

Having your head in the clouds might be a distraction for some people, but Browdin thinks that it connects him to reality in a more thoughtful way. Take, for example, the star named Beetlejuice: Beetlejuice is, metaphorically, on the throes of death. It is expected to explode within the next million years. Sometimes, he looks up at that star and dreams about that day.

"It will go into supernova, and when it does, it will be visible during the day on Earth," he says. "It's going to be a really bright spot on the Earth and it's going to be incredible. That star is flickering in its last tiny little bit of life. It lived millions and millions of years, and it's going to die any second.

“Seeing the life cycle of something as incredible as a massive star and knowing that we're a small part of its life, that we're around to see it, that's kind of cool."

Aaron Pellish is a digital intern for KCUR 89.3.