Interview: Astrophysicist Cornelia Lang talks black holes, creativity and Witching Hour

"Home Sweet Home" -- photo via Flickr Creative Commons
“Home Sweet Home” — photo via Flickr Creative Commons

Beyond Visible Light: Searching for Clues to the Unknown in the Heart of the Milky Way Galaxy

Iowa City Public Library — Friday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.

Cornelia Lang is something of an anomaly on the Witching Hour line-up. As a friend noted joyfully when I shared a post about the festival on Facebook: “Comedian, comedian, comedian, ASTROPHYSICIST.”

Lang’s inclusion is one of several surprising and exciting departures from the normal festival lineup of writers and performers that Witching Hour has in store. Her presentation is among the first of the weekend — Friday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. at the Iowa City Public Library — and will set the tone for the next two days, which so full to the brim with cool events that you’ll often wish you could be in two (or three!) places at once.

She’s from the Midwest originally, but Lang, a professor at the University of Iowa, studied on both the east coast (undergrad at Vassar, postdoctoral work at UMass Amherst) and the west (graduate studies at UCLA), before moving to Iowa City in 2002. She also spent time in New Mexico at the Very Large Array telescope in Socorro, where she returns regularly to conduct research, often with students in tow.

You are something of a stand-out among the Witching Hour lineup, which is largely comedians, musicians, and playwrights. What drew you to this speaking opportunity?

I believe the intersection of art, culture and science is a very interesting and vibrant place to be working and thinking. I like the idea of combining performances and disciplines around a theme, rather than to always be stuck in the ‘silos’ of what we are supposed to be doing.

What topics will your Witching Hour presentation focus on? Who do you hope to see in your audience?

I will be talking about the work I do to study the “Known Unknowns” at the Center of our Milky Way galaxy. This region includes a 4 million solar mass black hole, clouds of dense and warm gas (unusually warm and turbulent), massive star clusters and unique magnetized structures. Understanding the detailed interplay between these components gives us insight into what happens in the nuclear (central) regions of most “normal” galaxies. I hope anyone who is interested in this topic comes to see the presentation!

Do you think UI is more focused on teaching, or research? How much leeway do you feel you have to balance your interests in both of those areas? Which appeals to you more?

The University of Iowa is lucky to have an incredible combination of top-notch researchers who are also excellent and thoughtful teachers. I enjoy both equally. There is nothing more exciting than exposing undergraduate and graduate students to the world of research, than taking them to the Very Large Array radio telescope in rural New Mexico for the first time. When you drive there, there is a rise in the road, and you look out over the Plains of St. Augustin and the view of the 27 antennas appears to you; there is nothing like it!

As you approach, you see cattle grazing and you realize that some astronomer somewhere in the world is controlling these 27 telescopes in parallel and they are recording a distant cosmic signal. On the other hand, getting faculty and students in a room together to learn about basic scientific thought, using hands-on examples and seeing students “get it” for the first time — that is pretty exhilarating also. Or having a student say to you how much your course meant to them, to their time at the University of Iowa — that’s very powerful. A at large R1 university like Iowa, It’s hard to have research without teaching and vice versa. The energy and synergy between teaching and research for most faculty is real and very appealing.

Your new course, “Origins of Life in the Universe,” is a multi-disciplinary course taught by faculty in many departments. How has interacting with your non-science colleagues influenced your teaching? What do you think students gain from a course styled that broadly?

“Origins of Life in the Universe” is created and taught by all-science faculty, but the fields of each faculty member vary widely from biological anthropology and genetics to evolutionary biology to galactic astronomy. My appreciation for understanding these different fields and approaches has grown significantly since working on this course. The faculty who designed the course created [it] as much for ourselves in some ways as for our TAs and undergraduates. It’s a rare chance for students in the course to see their faculty members learning from one another as well. I think that presents to them a model for how to be an interdisciplinary, life-long learner — which is one of the university’s strategic goals by the way!

There are four other “Big Ideas” courses on campus that use our model and cover topics ranging from the history and science of petroleum oil to being creative over a lifetime to understanding the connection between rural Iowa and rural India. Students report engagement and practice working with each other and learning material in a meaningful and deep way, that doesn’t always happen in a large lecture class. These classes are typically taught with some or all sections occurring in the University’s TILE classrooms which foster faculty-student and TA-student interactions.

Much of your research focuses on studies of the center of our galaxy. What can that nucleus tell us that informs our understanding of the Milky Way as a whole? What drew you to this particular area of research?

I study the very core of the Milky Way galaxy. This is a region that is approximately 1000 light years by 300 light years at the dynamical center of our Galaxy. The Sun orbits the center of the Galaxy but is located 25,000 light years from this region. It takes our star hundreds of millions of years to orbit once.

There is a supermassive black hole at the very heart of the Milky Way. Observations have shown that the mass is four million times the mass of our Sun. I am particularly interested in understanding how stars form in this tumultuous environment, and also what the role of the strong and unusual magnetic field is in the Galactic center. This field of research is particularly collaborative and exciting. We have to rely on tools that don’t include the visible light telescope [because] the Galactic center lies behind clouds of obscuring dust and gas, so we have to creatively seek information from other types of telescopes — infrared, X-ray satellites, radio telescopes. It’s an exciting challenge!

Pop science, of course, is enthralled with black holes, and the public loves considering the unknowns associated with them. What significance does that area of your research have for astrophysics specifically, and for our understanding of the universe generally?

The unknown is an exciting place. In astronomy, we often refer to the unknown as the “Known Unknown,” a la Donald Rumsfeld, because there are things we don’t understand but we know are out there — i.e., dark matter, dark energy, transient radio sources. Even in observing astronomical objects, many of us study objects which lurk behind dark clouds of opaque dust. Therefore, these regions are “unknown” to us visually, but they can be revealed in wavelengths other than visible light, such as radio, X-ray, infrared and ultraviolet.

My research aims to explore the detailed interplay between gas, stars and the magnetic field in the most densely packed region of our Milky Way Galaxy. It is an extreme environment unlike any other environment in our Galaxy.

Your work is very much tied to advances in technology and the tools we use to monitor and observe space. What are some of the most exciting changes that you have seen in this area, and what are your hopes for the future?

One of the biggest developments in my career has been the advent of very high resolution instruments across the electromagnetic spectrum — instruments in space and on the ground can now observe the cosmos with 1/3600th of a degree or better sharpness. One challenge has been to watch the landscape both nationally and statewide for funding for basic research, including instruments, telescopes and research grants shrink dramatically.

Times are tougher than ever to propose for a new scientific study or telescope. However, world class facilities all across the globe continue to be built piece by piece and these facilities will carry out some of the best, most cutting edge and exciting astronomical observations in the years to come.

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