Banner by Dan Walsh and Taylor Siegfried

Hail to Physics!

by Zach Composto

Have you ever wondered where those beautiful images of space in Google Sky come from? Or what scientists are working on the next great advancements in quantum mechanics? The answer to both of those questions are that they can be found at none other the University of Pittsburgh. The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Pitt was a part of the recent Large Synoptic Survey recently that helped map the stars and celestial bodies for Google Sky. They are also constantly working on advancements in quantum mechanics through the use of particle accelerators (a machine that moves sub-atomic particles at near light speed and hurls them into each other) all around the world. These are just two of the aspects being explored by the physics department at Pitt. I was curious to know more about Pitt’s involvement in the various disciplines of physics, so I spoke to Dr. Arthur Kosowsky, the chair of the department. He explained to me that Pitt is at the forefront of physics research saying that there is “A lot of research [being done] at the frontiers of what anyone is doing in the world of physics.” Key advancements and discoveries are being made every day in this department that are driving some of the top research in the world.

According to Dr. Kosowsky, at its core the goal of the physics department can be summarized rather simply. Its chief goal is to “Attack problems using observations and data”, a goal that can be seen across all of the projects that have been done in Dr. Kosowky’s time as the chair of the department. One of the most exciting areas of physics that is being researched at Pitt right now is in the Condensed Matter Physics research labs. This might sound like a name you’d hear while binge-watching Star Trek, but it is one of the department’s biggest focuses and is at the forefront of advancing our understanding of the universe on a large scale. Dr. Kosowsky told me that in this discipline of research the labs on campus are able to “observe systems that display quantum mechanical behavior” by “manipulating small particles in specific ways”. In simpler terms, Dr. Kosowsky is saying that they use the principals of quantum mechanics to observe aspects of the universe on the smallest scales. For those that have no idea what quantum mechanics is, it is about as cool in reality as its name sounds. It essentially is the science that deal with the nature of subatomic particles and is the scientific world’s first real attempt to explain why these particles behave so strangely.

Pitt even has a partnership with the famous Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is currently the most important particle accelerator in the world and is the place where many particles are discovered. Pitt currently has three people working on the ATLAS experiment there. This group is known for the discovering the particle called the Higgs Boson, a particle so important it was given the nickname “The God Particle”, because of how it interacts with other particles. Over the years advancements like the ones I’ve mentioned have been very important to the world of physics. They’ve helped us as a species see universe in a much clearer way than we’ve ever seen it. Quantum mechanics is a discipline of physics that is becoming needed more and more as larger experiments are being done over the world, to help form an even clearer picture of the universe. Because of this fact, Dr. Kosowsky sees quantum mechanics and high-energy physics becoming even more of a focus of Pitt’s physics department in the coming years.

Another exciting research project that Dr. Kosowsky told me about was the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Pitt was one of the first departments to get involved in this project and it was one of Dr. Kosowsky’s favorite research projects that has been done in his time at Pitt. The project was essentially making use of new technology that allowed us to better map the sky and have a more accurate picture of the universe on all cosmological levels. This was the project that aided the development of google’s “Google Sky” application, and it was a post-doctoral researcher at Pitt, Ryan Scranton, that started the process of using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s data for Google Sky. The department is still currently involved in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but Dr. Kosowsky told me that the department is currently debating whether or not to go back for another season of observation with the project.

It’s not just grad students and PhD students that get to have all the fun in this department either. In order to perform this ambitious projects Pitt is involved in, Dr. Kosowsky said that is important for under-graduate students to help on these projects. It is also “not uncommon to see an undergraduate as a co-author on a scientific paper”. Dr. Koswsky also told me about one project in the future that is going to be a massive inter-disciplinary project, involving more than just under-graduate students in the physics department. The project will focus on “theoretical and computational biology…It is a project that will involve the physics, math, biology, chemistry, computer science, and neuroscience departments”. This is a project that will be a big focus across the entire school of Arts and Sciences. It is an ambitious attempt to “Use techniques from math and physics to understand biological systems better”. The University of Pittsburgh’s physics department is one of the best at this institution and is the embodiment of everything that Pitt represents, and I can’t wait to see what direction Dr. Kosowsky takes it in in the future.