Solving the Mysteries of the Universe
BY FRITZ ESKER ’00
Have you ever wondered where the galaxies come from? Or why the night sky looks like it does? Or at what rate the universe is expanding? If these big questions are fun for you to ponder, you’d probably enjoy Associate Professor Dr. Tirthabir Biswas’ cosmology class at Loyola.
Reducing cosmology to a simple definition is not easy, but it is best defined as a study of the history of the universe.
"Cosmology helps you quantitatively track the universe as it evolves,” Biswas says.
Creating a cosmology elective appealed to Biswas on multiple levels. As a theoretical cosmologist, it’s obviously close to his heart, but that wasn’t the only reason. He wanted to teach a class where students used programming to solve physics problems. In the work force and in graduate school, students need to learn how to use programming and computers in research. The class gave Biswas the opportunity to impart these skills to his students while teaching a subject he loves.
Some of the mysteries Biswas addresses in the cosmology class include dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter is the glue that holds galaxies together. It can’t be seen, but scientists know it’s there. Galaxies are clusters of stars stuck together. A force needs to hold them together. If such a force did not exist, stars in the galaxy could drift apart or never form in the first place.
Dark energy provides a force that counteracts gravity and causes the expansion of the universe to speed up.
"There must be more stuff in the galaxy that we cannot see,” Biswas says.
A centerpiece of the class is the research project where students conduct research, coupled with creative thinking, to try to solve the mysteries of the universe. One of the most interesting projects Biswas saw in his class last year focused on dark energy.
The group concluded in their research that dark energy does not exist, that gravity simply changes at large cosmological distances. After they concluded the class, they expressed interest in continuing their research. For Biswas, seeing this kind of progress and excitement from his students was the most rewarding part of the class.
Biswas says the research project posed the biggest challenge for his students but was also the most rewarding part of the class for many. There’s a sense of adventure in pursuing answers to questions no one has definitively answered yet about things no one can see.
"It’s exciting, but it’s also a challenge," Biswas says. "The challenge but also the opportunity is solving a problem where the answer is not known."