Big bangs and black holes
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25 March 2010
Faculty of Science Inaugural Professorial Lecture Series 2009-2010.
‘Big bangs and black holes - a multi-dimensional view of the Universe’ Professor Carole Mundell
Professor Carole Mundell provided a fascinating multi-dimensional view of the Universe during her Inaugural lecture, which gave insight into black holes and how research into this particular field of astronomy has progressed over the last 200 years.
Professor Mundell explained that although theoretical concepts of black holes date back over 200 years, they remained in the realms of mathematical speculation until the late 20th century. Today, the existence of black holes - stellar and supermassive - is no longer debated; instead, the physics of their creation and the far-reaching consequences of their existence remain at the forefront of modern astronomy.
Whilst astronomers can never hope to travel to their chosen objects and study them at close hand, nor have samples of astrophysical objects to dissect or investigate in earth-bound laboratories, they persevere in their research by using modern technology to detect light - or electromagnetic radiation, which carries coded information on the distant physical processes.
Optical light, to which human eyes are most sensitive, has been harvested throughout human history, enriching ancient cultures and helping our forebears realise that the Earth does not lie at the centre of the Universe. However, this light represents only a small fraction of the total light available for collection. Technological advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have ensured that we can collect light ranging from the highest energy gamma rays, through X-rays to long wavelength radio waves. Perhaps more importantly, the information gathered from astronomical images can be augmented with techniques such as spectroscopy and polarimetry, which allow the motions of stars and gas in distant galaxies to be measured or magnetic fields in distant stellar explosions to be probed. Although black holes themselves do not emit radiation, experimental confirmation of their existence resulted from such impressive technical advances.
Professor Mundell’s lecture introduced some of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe that are driven by black holes: active galactic nuclei and gamma ray bursts -explaining that these two classes of objects may share many physical processes but change their observed properties on vastly different timescales (millions of years, minutes and seconds). Professor Mundell challenged our current understanding of them, discussing how a combination of multi-wavelength, multi-epoch imaging with spectroscopy and polarimetry can help to decode the information in the detected light to provide a multi-dimensional view of our Universe.
Pictured: Professor Peter Wheeler, Dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor Carole Mundell, Professor Mike Bode, Director of LJMU's Astrophysics Research Institute, and Aldham Robarts.