Beyond the Milky Way

August 23, 2010 by Raúl de la Fuente Marcos  
Filed under Features

Imagination Meets Science in New Astrophyics Program

Tenerife, Canary Islands, late September 2009: a small team of Suffolk University students huddles tensely around the camera control computer on the 0.5-meter telescope of the Teide Observatory, 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level.

To use the telescope effectively, students must consider a host of mechanical and external factors and conditions: Will the sky remain clear? What is the wind speed? Is the shutter open? Are all the instrument settings correct? Will they be able to measure the spectral lines in their target star and determine its composition by spectral analysis? Is the star normal or peculiar?

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This is not a scene from a postgraduate thesis project but from an undergraduate course in the new astrophysics track at Suffolk University. In collaboration with Spain’s Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), the program gives physics majors firsthand experience in observing the skies at a major international observatory, located at a dark-sky site on the Spanish island of Tenerife just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa. Back in Madrid or Boston, students will spend several weeks reducing and analyzing the data and preparing papers. For some of them it may be a turning point in their lives, an inspiration to pursue a postgraduate research degree in astrophysics.

“Thanks to the success of new technology such as the Hubble Telescope, star-gazing has become more than just a hobby,” says physics professor Walter Johnson. “Astrophysics is a fascinating area that examines the universe from both micro and macro levels. Think quarks to the Milky Way.”

A recent report published by the Astronomy Education Review indicates that 61 US colleges and universities offer students a track or major in astrophysics/astronomy. Nearly 20% of the approximately 2,600 students beginning graduate work in US physics 
programs each year are choosing to do their research work in astrophysics, making it the largest subdiscipline in physics.

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The astrophysics program at Suffolk presents a solid introduction to both theoretical and observational astronomy, computational astrophysics modeling, and supercomputing. It also introduces physical science students to current knowledge about the nature of the universe and some of its most notable components. This content can be particularly useful for future high school physics and general science teachers.

The curriculum requires two semesters at Suffolk Madrid to complete most of the astrophysics coursework. Students will be learning in one of the most important commercial cities in Europe, as Madrid is the third most populous capital in the European Union and a major center for international business. Suffolk University has access to the Teide Observatory facility as the result of an agreement with the European Northern Observatory and its governing institution, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), the leading Spanish research center in the field of astronomy and astrophysics and host of the world’s largest fully orientable telescope currently in operation, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, also known as GranTeCan or GTC.

“The caliber of a resource such as Teide means that students will come out of the program with a much broader background in physics than is typical for most undergraduate physics majors,” says Johnson.

A major strength of the astrophysics program is its small size, making it possible for students to have one-on-one contact with faculty, thus emphasizing research-based learning. Its interdisciplinary approach to theory, observation, and simulation provides students with a strong background in relevant technology, programming, and mathematics as well as the science of astronomy. In addition, studying abroad exposes students to other cultures and potential employment opportunities. Inspired by the borderless skies they study, students can begin to look beyond national and cultural boundaries on earth and see the wider world as their home.

Raul and Carlos Marcos Suffolk University College of Arts and Science

Faculty members Raúl de la Fuente Marcos and Carlos de la Fuente Marcos in Madrid; assistant professor of physics Prashant Sharma and physics professor and department chair Walter Johnson in Boston.
by Raúl de la Fuente Marcos

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