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Middlebury College Astrophysicist Eilat Glikman Sparks Curiosity With Quasars

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Eilat Glikman at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii - COURTESY OF EILAT GLIKMAN
  • Courtesy Of Eilat Glikman
  • Eilat Glikman at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii

Eilat Glikman was a teenager in the 1990s when a Harvard University professor visited her New Jersey high school physics class to talk about the Hubble Space Telescope. At the time, astronauts had just repaired the orbiting observatory, which was sending back astonishing images of previously unseen objects in the universe.

"I couldn't believe that this was her job," Glikman said of the Harvard astronomer. Upon seeing Hubble's photos, she remembered thinking, That's it. I'm done. I know what I want to do for a living!

Today, Glikman regularly works with images and data from the nearly 30-year-old Hubble, as well as from ground-based telescopes such as those at the Maunakea Observatories in Hawaii. Since 2013, the 42-year-old astrophysicist has been an assistant professor of physics at Middlebury College, where she conducts research and teaches students about space, ancient astronomy and the origins of the universe. Her specialty is quasars, which are among the brightest and strangest objects in the universe, and their role in the formation and evolution of galaxies.

The private liberal arts college of about 2,500 undergraduates isn't a hotbed for astrophysics; in fact, Glikman is the only professor at Middlebury who regularly teaches it. But even though most of her students don't go on to become astrophysicists themselves, Glikman broadens their intellectual curiosity through her passion for the cosmos. In the process, she helps them hone a skill that's applicable in many disciplines: problem-solving.

"I try to make it so that physics is not this mean, intimidating, scary thing," she said. "It's actually very accessible. We just have to train our brains to think a certain way."

Indeed, Glikman has a knack for explaining complex and even mind-bending concepts — black holes, gravitational waves, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity — in ways that even nonscientists can grasp, as a reporter discovered during a recent interview. This skill may explain why she was featured in a January 2018 episode of the PBS series "NOVA," titled "Black Hole Apocalypse."

Pasted to Glikman's office door, on the fifth floor of McCardell Bicentennial Hall, is the first-ever photo of a black hole. It was released on April 19, which she calls "the greatest day of my life." Though astrophysicists have known for years about the existence of black holes, as she explained, there was something validating about actually capturing an image of one — and the fact that it looked exactly as physicists had predicted.

Glikman's office is warm and inviting, with family photos, a rainbow-colored wind sock and a floor-to-ceiling plant. Her research lab, located two floors above and just steps away from Middlebury's Mittelman Observatory, is a major improvement over her previous work space at Columbia University, where she earned her doctorate in astronomy in 2006. That dark and windowless office was in Columbia's Pupin Hall, once home to the top-secret Manhattan Project that helped develop the first atomic bomb during World War II. Due to residual radioactivity, she noted, some of its floors are still off-limits.

At Columbia, Glikman discovered her passion for quasars — or, as she put it, "They discovered me." Before starting graduate school, she met Columbia astronomy professor David Helfand, now president emeritus of the American Astronomical Society and board chair of the American Institute of Physics. Helfand began talking to Glikman about quasars, specifically whether researchers were finding all that existed or whether their research methods were biased toward finding only certain types.

"I didn't even know what the word 'quasar' meant, and I was too embarrassed to admit it," she confessed. "I just sat there and nodded along."

Quasars, a portmanteau for quasi-stellar objects, are extremely bright, old and distant celestial objects, surrounded by clouds of interstellar gases known as accretion disks. As the disks spin, they heat up and emit massive amounts of energy in the form of light. Ironically, these highly luminous objects orbit the darkest objects in the universe — supermassive black holes, which are millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun and whose gravitational forces are so strong that nothing can escape them, not even light.

Over the years, Glikman has taught courses on cosmological physics, the Milky Way and ancient astronomy, among other topics. She gets frustrated when TV shows and science documentaries portray astronomy by using blackboards scribbled with complex and intimidating-looking mathematical equations. It makes her profession seem too unapproachable for anyone but math geniuses.

Glikman takes a different educational approach. In one class she's teaching this fall, called Introduction to the Universe, she assigns her students problems that use actual astronomical data and telescopic observations. However, solving the problems requires no advanced calculus or trigonometry, just basic algebra and simple formulas.

"The hardest thing you're going to do in this class is take a square root," she said. "There's a real satisfaction [in discovering] ... that we can truly understand the cosmos using math we learned in high school."

Several former and current students of Glikman's said that her passion for astrophysics is infectious. Diego Garcia is a Middlebury College senior who never planned to pursue a career in astronomy. In fact, the 20-year-old New York City native, who took few classes in math and physics in high school, initially intended to major in chemistry or economics. But one of Glikman's courses helped put him on a new trajectory.

"She is easily the most excited person in the room, and it's really easy to reciprocate her enthusiasm," said Garcia, who spent the summer interning at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md. "Of all my professors, I would definitely rank professor Glikman as one of the best."

Glikman said she wishes that Middlebury had more offerings for students like Garcia, because her classes often ignite similar curiosity in other students.

"Every semester, many, many students come up to me at the end and say, 'OK, so what's next? Is there another class I can take?'" Glikman said. "It's sad because I say, 'That's it. You can become a physics major, but that just means you may have to go on to grad school.'"

For a select few, Glikman has created another offering. Each summer, she takes on a handful of students to do research with her for 10 weeks; this summer she had four in her lab. Using high-powered computers and public-domain data downloaded from the Hubble, Glikman's summer students searched for pairs of closely aligned quasars that were about to merge.

Before starting the research, Glikman assumed that it would be extremely rare to find two quasars at the same "red shift," or position in space, that were about to collide, because humans had never witnessed such a collision.

She recalled telling her students: "'Guys, this is a fishing expedition. We might not find anything, so be prepared for that.'" Much to her surprise, "They found some," she said. In fact, their findings confirmed earlier predictions by other researchers that about 1 percent of all quasars fall into this category. Glikman was amazed that no one else had done this research before.

"The data is out there, and it's free," she added. "You just need people to do the work."

One of Glikman's few students to pursue an advanced degree in astrophysics or a related field is Karla Nunez, a 2019 graduate. Nunez, a Honduran immigrant from Chicago, arrived on campus aiming to study engineering and material sciences.

However, during her first year of college, Nunez visited the Mittelman Observatory; she got to see a "blood moon," a total lunar eclipse that appears red due to sunlight refracted through the Earth's atmosphere.

"I thought it was the most magical thing in the world," Nunez recalled in a phone interview. When she mentioned to an older student that she wanted to learn more about astronomy, he walked her across campus and introduced her to Glikman. The physics prof not only became her mentor, Nunez said, but someone who was extremely supportive to her as an immigrant and student of color.

"She was an integral part of me not only staying at Middlebury but also thriving at Middlebury," added Nunez, who's now pursuing a PhD in geology and planetary science at the University of Maryland. "The way she teaches is very much like, 'I love this so much, and I want you to love it as much as I do.'"

Glikman has made lasting impressions on her colleagues, as well. Columbia astronomy professor Helfand wrote via email that, of all the PhD students he's mentored over the years, Glikman "represents the most satisfying experience I have had to date.

"It has been a uniquely rewarding experience to watch Eilat blossom ... in the years since she has left Columbia," Helfand wrote. "She has mastered an impressive variety of observational techniques, combined them in unique ways, and penetrated deeply into the physics of the problem she is studying. She is independent, creative, highly energetic, curious and, quite simply, having fun being an astrophysicist."

Though studying something as esoteric as quasars may not meet every Middlebury student's notion of "fun," even an hourlong conversation with Glikman was enough to witness the joy she experiences in being a sort of cosmic detective.

"To me, it's more about the process of investigation, of being curious about something and solving a mystery," she explained. "Quasars just happen to be what I work on. And they just happen to be very cool."

The Mittelman Observatory and Middlebury College Department of Physics host a stargazing open house on Friday, September 20, 8:30 to 10 p.m., weather permitting. For weather status, check go.middlebury.edu/observatory or call 443-2266 after 6:30 p.m. the evening of the event. Free. middlebury.edu

The original print version of this article was headlined "Star Power | A Middlebury College professor uses space's brightest objects — quasars — to spark students' curiosity"

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