Mapping the Universe

Helen Meskhidze ’16 creates an atlas of starburst galaxy emission lines for other researchers.

Scattered throughout the universe are “starburst” galaxies that form stars faster than normal — and no two are alike.

As they disperse light, their appearances change. Some “grow” antennae, while others spiral into the nether regions of space. And the light they emit presents itself in ways that change depending on various factors.

What makes one galaxy look a certain way, while another appears vastly different? Helen Meskhidze, a physics and philosophy double major with a minor in French, studied starburst galaxies with support from the Lumen Prize.

The clusters of stars and supernovas millions of light years from Earth emit diverse wavelengths of light. Everything from temperature to the chemical composition of the star clouds affects those colors. Using supercomputer simulations that revealed the type of light astrophysicists should expect to see from galaxies that contain certain properties, Meskhidze, an Elon Honors Fellow and finalist for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, compiled an atlas of starburst galaxy emission lines.

An observational science, astrophysics differs from other sciences in that researchers study the results of experiments that have already happened. Meskhidze’s atlas gives astrophysicists a nearly instant snapshot of what they observe through their own equipment. The future atlas will offer immediate clues to the age, composition, and density of starburst galaxies, among other characteristics.

Renowned astrophysicists have also taken note. Gary Ferland, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Kentucky, said that while astronomers have to be clever about how they receive their information from light, Meskhidze has become an expert at using computer programs to do so. He added that Meskhidze is “making excellent progress in a difficult field.”

Meskhidze has presented at conferences in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, and she interned last year at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. She also used part of her Lumen Prize funding to pursue research that emanated from a methods course in philosophical inquiry. She shared work about queerness in nature at a conference of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy.

That paper, “Challenging Ontologies: Making Sense in Ethics, Science, Politics, and Art”, stems from colloquial use of the phrase “acts against nature.” Meskhidze offers a philosophic refutation of this phrase by highlighting the temporality of the queerness evident in nature. She argued that queerness does exist in nature but only as a temporary quality that is dependent on a paradigm.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to model cosmic-scale things on computers. You’re studying the universe with your computer.”

For example, she said, though the electron acts queerly when analyzing it via the Bohr model of the atom, it no longer exhibits that queerness when adopting a framework of quantum mechanics. However, she said, a quantum mechanical framework does highlight other queer phenomena.

Meskhidze is attending the University of Western Ontario pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy of science.