The University of Utah
Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah

Patrick Wiggins Discovers Bright Supernova in ‘Fireworks Galaxy’ NGC 6946

New Supernova is Bright Enough to Spot from Earth

Confirmed supernova, "SN 2017aew", can be seen on the top right side of the "Fireworks Galaxy" in the center of this animation. Photo Credit: Patrick Wiggins

On May 13, 2017, "Phun With Physics" Outreacher and NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, Patrick Wiggins spotted something unusual in the sky. He was looking at the spiral galaxy NGC 6946 (the "Fireworks Galaxy") in Cygnus, over 22 million light-years away from his telescope and home near Erda, UT. He noticed a bright spot that he hadn't seen before. By comparing what he what he was seeing with earlier photographs taken of the same galaxy, he realized he was witnessing a star explode.

Named "SN 2017aew", Patrick Wiggins' discovery was confirmed on May 14th by two astronomers: Dr. Subo Dong from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University, and Dr. Krzysztof Z. Stanek from The Ohio State University, both experts in supernovae.

When a star goes supernova, it is one of the largest, and most impressive astronomical events in space. Situated between a nova and a hypernova in terms of total energy, a supernova occurs when a star's core changes in some manner. This can be due to either a white dwarf gaining too much mass from another star orbiting around the same point in a binary star system until the white dwarf's core is so dense that it collapses due to the overwhelming gravitational force (known as a Type I Supernova), or a massive star (many, many times larger than our own sun) reaches the end of its life and runs out of nuclear fuel. The star's core collapses from its own staggering gravitational forces and explodes (a Type II Supernova). In both cases, these supernovae are astoundingly bright for a time - bright enough to be seen by amateur and professional astronomers alike - until they expend their energy and their bright light begins to fade over the next few months.

Patrick Wiggins
Longtime Utah astronomy educator Patrick Wiggins in 2014. Photo Credit: Bill Dunford

This most recent discovery, SN 2017aew, has been confirmed to be a Type II supernova.

This is the third supernova discovery for Patrick Wiggins. He also discovered "SN 2015Q" in the NGC 3888 galaxy in Ursa Major in 2015. In 2014, supernova "SN2014G" was discovered independently by both Koichi Itagaki in Japan, and Patrick Wiggins.

In addition, Patrick Wiggins has discovered a whole host of astronomical events in space, including an asteroid he discovered in 2008, which the International Astronomical Union named "Univofutah", at Patrick's request, to honor the University of Utah. Wiggins' work has earned him many accolades, including the prestigious Distinguished Public Service Medal, NASA's highest civilian honor.

This story is still developing and will be updated as new information becomes available. Stay tuned.


2017 Department Awards & Scholarships

Graduation and commencement exercises for the University of Utah took place on May 4-5, 2017. The Department of Physics & Astronomy congratulates all of its 2017 graduates and welcomes them to their alumni family.

The Department of Physics & Astronomy also congratulates all its 2017 student award recipients on their hard work and accomplishments. Recipients were honored at the Physics & Astronomy Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, May 3rd at 1:00 PM in 101 James Fletcher Building.

Timothy Allen

Teddy Anderson

Sebastian Atwood

Sangitya Baniya

Paul Bergeron

Rylee Cardon

Kevin Davenport

Greg Furlich

Jessica Galbraith-Frew

Mark Hayward

Shirin Jamali

Austin King

Zhuxi Luo

Patrick Odenthal

Jon Paul Lindquist

Dima Pesin

Joshua Peterson

Deric Session

Bijaya Thapa


Congratulations to our 2017 graduates and scholarship recipients!
(* denotes Honors degree)

2017 Awards & ScholarshipsBaccalaureate DegreesMasters DegreesPh. D Degrees

Mentor Teaching Assistant
Greg Furlich

Diversity Award
Jessica Galbraith-Frew

Irvin and Norma Swigart Scholarship
Sangitya Baniya
Zhuxi Luo
Bijaya Thapa

Martin Hiatt Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award
Timothy Allen

Outstanding Grad Student Award
Shirin Jamali
Jon Paul Lindquist

Outstanding Graduate TA Award
Paul Bergeron
Kevin Davenport

Outstanding Postdoc Research Award
Patrick Odenthal

Outstanding Undergraduate Junior Award
Joshua Peterson

Outstanding Undergraduate Senior Award
Lexi Wilson

Outstanding Undergraduate Sophomore Award
Julia Vonnesen

Paul Gilbert Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award
Sebastian Atwood

Scholarship Recipients
Teddy Anderson
Mark Hayward
Joshua Peterson
Deric Session

Students’ Choice Award for Undergraduate Seminar
Dima Pesin

Taylor Endowed Scholarship Preston J. and Phyllis R. Taylor
Rylee Cardon

Thomas J. Parmley Scholarship
Teddy Anderson

Walter Wada Scholarship for Undergraduate Physics Major
Austin King

Timothy Allen
Sabastian Atwood
Sarah Aylor
Daniel Brown
Justice Clark
Sydney Duncan
Jamie Dyer
Byron Eng
Cameron Gleed
Gabrielle Gold
Andrew Hale
Keith Hantla
Benjamin Hinrichs
Parker Holzer
Julie Imig
Benjamin Knowlton
Alexis Lagan
Ethan Lake
Caroline Lewis
Jesse Luke
Caleb Mitchell
Brianna Montoya
Ashley Ogle
Kiel Palmer
Seul-Ye Park
Mathew Potts
Benjamin Riseman
Cedric Shaskey
Laura Slusser
Aaron Smith
Julian Stanley
Alexis Wilson
Tingshiuan Wu
Sangita Baniya
Greg Engh
K.C. Erb
Shirin Jamali
Run Li
Jing Ma
Chad Miller
Michael Newbold
Janvida Rou
Bryant Svedin
Yue Zhang
David Harris
Pei-i Ku
Song-Haeng Lee
Marc Lindley
Ryan McLaughlin
Chad Miller
Dieu Duc Nguyen
Nabraj Sapkota
Xuefang Sui
Bryant Svedin
Fei Teng
Eddie Thenell
Chris Winterowd
Takahiro Yamamoto
Yue Zhang
Zachary Zundel


Commencement & Convocation Information 2017

From the Office of the Registrar & the College of Science


University Commencement will be held on Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 6:30pm in the Jon M. Huntsman Center (Map). Candidates for graduation in the summer 2016, fall 2016, spring 2017, or summer 2017 terms may attend.

Commencement is open to the public and free to attend. No tickets or RSVP required. The world-renowned mountain climber, filmmaker, author, philanthropist and Universityof Utah alum Conrad Anker will deliver the commencement address. Honorary Degrees will be awarded to Conrad Anker and Gail Miller.For more information, please visit the Commencement Ceremony page. Those who are unable to attend commencement can watch it streamed live on or online via

For those of you attending or participating in graduation ceremonies this spring, here's some important information.


(For the entire campus where the VIPs speak)
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Jon M. Huntsman Center (Map)

  • 5:00 pm - Graduates assemble in the Parking Terrace west of the Huntsman Center dressed in cap and gown
  • 5:30 pm - Guests should be seated
  • 5:45 pm - Procession begins
  • 6:30 pm - Commencement ceremony begins


(Where your name is called and you walk across the stage)
College of Science (Click here for other colleges' date, time and location)
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Jon M. Huntsman Center (Map)
More info

  • 7:15 - 7:45 am - Graduates assemble outside Jon M. Huntsman Center (see the link above for additional details)
  • 9:00 am - Convocation ceremony begins
  • 11:00 am College of Science Reception at the S.J. Quinney Law Building, 6th Floor, Room 6623 (see below for additional details)


Following the Convocation, graduates and their guests are invited to a reception for the College of Science Class of 2017. Lunch will be served. This reception will be held:
Thursday, May 4, 2017
11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Law Building, 6th Floor, Room 6623 (map)


Convocation will also be streamed live online so forward these links to family and friends who want to view it, but can't attend:
On-demand streaming of the College of Science Convocation will be available here.
The live stream link will be available here.


Campus parking lots may be used at no charge during commencement and convocation ceremonies. Please see the commencement parking map for parking locations as well as shuttle and TRAX stops. Additionally, since campus parking is limited, we encourage the use of UTA TRAX on these days. The use of TRAX while on campus is free both days, but fare is still required for any off campus travel.

Shuttle Services

As campus parking is limited, graduates and their guests are encouraged to use the free campus shuttle service to travel between commencement events. Shuttles run throughout campus and are scheduled every 10 minutes. Track the current location of any campus shuttle using the Live Shuttle Tracker.

Accessible Parking

For a map to all accessible parking options on campus, visit the campus map and select the "Accessible" option from the Map Features drop-down menu.

Construction Alerts

For a map with notifications regarding all parking lots effected by campus construction, view the campus map and select the "Construction" option from the Map Features drop-down menu.

Commuter Services

For more information about transportation and parking options, visit the Commuter Services website.

To learn more, please visit the Commencement Ceremony Parking & Transportation page.


March For Science, April 22

Saturday, April 22, 2017 @ 3:00 p.m. - March for Science at City Creek Center

March for Science

Date & Time: Saturday, April 22, 2017 @ 3:00 p.m

Location: City Creek Center
View Map

Click here, or contact the College of Science at (801) 581-6958, to learn more about the March for Science.


Physics Is Fun: AAPT Meeting & More

From the @theU website.

Adam Beehler

The basement of the James Fletcher building has no windows, but the view is anything but boring. Dozens of rows of exhibit cases burst with wires, gadgets and myriad materials fit for a mad scientist’s workshop. The scientist himself stands out from the chaos in a technicolor shirt and a tie-dye lab coat. Adam Beehler, the lecture demonstration specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the U’s own Bill Nye; he uses the facility to develop and build demonstrations to help instructors teach complex physical concepts with engaging activities.

On April 14-15, Beehler will present some of his demonstrations at the Idaho-Utah section’s American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) spring meeting, hosted at the U. Educators from universities, colleges, and high schools from the two states will share research and strategies aimed at improving their teaching. It also reinvigorates the passionate scientists, like Beehler, who dedicate their lives to making physics accessible for people who think they could never understand it.

“A lot of people are intimidated by physics. There’s a stigma attached to it, that the math is really hard and only smart people can do it. But it can be understood,” says Beehler, sitting at a desk inside the facility. “I like broadening people’s horizons to recognize that physics is everywhere around us. It’s why you don’t fall down when you sit on your chair, why you feel warm or cold. It’s why you can see me, why you can hear me. We deal with it every day, but people don’t realize it.”

The Spring Meeting

The AAPT is a national organization aimed at “enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Lecture demonstrations have been an effective and entertaining tool for teaching science concepts for hundreds of years; the Idaho-Utah AAPT annual gathering allows regional educators to show off their new demos, and to support one another. The overarching goal is to get inspired with new ideas and motivation to go at it for another year, says Beehler, who serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

The spring meeting kicks off Friday, April 14 with a “share-a-thon,” where physics educators present demonstrations that they use in their classrooms to bring abstract physical concepts to life. People of all ages and science backgrounds are welcome to attend the free public demos in the James Fletcher Building, room 103 from 7:30-9:30 p.m.

“It’s a group of Bill Nyes getting together. It’s great,” says Kathrine Skollingsberg, public relations specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy and co-organizer of the conference.

Anyone can register for the meeting; the fee includes the Friday banquet and Saturday’s activities with a catered breakfast and lunch. Kevin “The Dark Ranger” Poe of Bryce Canyon National Park will deliver the keynote address about diversity in physics, and the solar eclipse happening in August. Students are invited to present their research or outreach efforts at the poster competition for cash prizes, and all will hear talks from fellow educators. The weekend wraps up with a tour of the Utah Nano-Fabrication Laboratory, and a raffle.

The raffle is more than a gift giveaway — it’s an opportunity for high school teachers to access resources to create engaging physics lessons. Sponsors donate typical raffle swag, such as books, science toys and gift cards. In addition, many of the meeting’s attendees donate some of their own equipment and teaching materials to the raffle to help out those without the means to obtain these supplies on their own. If high school teachers need things that are unavailable, they write them down for the AAPT organizers. The AAPT members spread the word to colleagues to find the items, says Skollingsberg.

“It’s really hard to teach kids physics in high school and maintain that interest into higher education,” she continues. “Resources can be difficult to come by. So, the college-level AAPT members do everything they can to make sure everybody has what they need.”

The U’s Own Bill Nye

The Friday night public demo show offers a glimpse into Beehler’s role as a lecture demonstration specialist; he designs, develops and refines presentations that illustrate physical concepts and engage the students to make predictions and say, “How did that happen?”

“The instructors don’t always know how to fit demonstrations into the curriculum. That’s where I can come in and help,” says Beehler. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s your research?’ To teach better, specifically with demonstrations. I develop, evaluate and fix demos. Demos can be effective, because they teach the physics well, but they might still be boring. They can be cool, but not effective. Or they can be effective and zesty.”

When physics students learn about electrical circuits, Beehler rolls out a zesty demo that deals with voltage, electrical currents and resistors. He hooks up a skinny, short circuit to a power source. He ramps up the voltage to send a power electrical current into the wimpy wire circuit. The current meets a lot of resistance, and physically heats up the wire until it starts glowing red. It gets so hot it will break.

“So, I’m burning something in class. It lights up, throws off some sparks, then breaks in half,” says Beehler. “That’s zesty, right? And it teaches about fuses!” Beehler asks.

Community Engagement

Beehler shares the engaging presentations outside of the halls of physics and astronomy. He has developed demos that illustrate concepts in math, engineering, meteorology and computer science. Institutions across the United States have adopted his demonstrations because of how effectively they increase student learning. Beehler also goes into elementary and middle school classrooms around Salt Lake City.  His dedication to science education was recognized earlier this year when he was awarded the Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology in Higher Education.

“Some higher up administrators gave me the medal because they recognized that community engagement has its place, and is useful, and can affect the economic welfare of the state. I’ve always felt that way —that’s why I do it,” Beehler says. “I’ve gone into classrooms, and the students have been intimidated or scared. They say, ‘I don’t like physics.’ But after a demonstration show they’ll say, ‘I like it now. I hope you’re still teaching when I get to the U.’ They want to go to college, and won’t rule physics out when they get there.”

Beehler has reached over 65,000 students and members of the general public through various community engagement activities. Together with the rest of the Department of Physics & Astronomy’s robust outreach efforts, the reach is much greater. Yet the groups lack sufficient financial support to do more effective community engagement. Many passionate scientists like Beehler end up using their own resources.

“For everybody, it’s a labor of love,” says Skollingsberg. “There are other places where they have amazing resources, and we’ve seen what’s possible.”

The College of Science and the Department of Physics & Astronomy are quite supportive — both co-sponsored the Idaho-Utah AAPT spring meeting, which kept registration costs down, and have offered academic credit for attendees. Beehler hopes administrators will see the Governor’s Medal as evidence of the value of community outreach, and allocate more tangible support for the day-to-day efforts to increase the public’s appreciation of physics.

“A lot of people will criticize community outreach or demos. They say, ‘Oh, it’s just fun. They’re not learning anything.’ Maybe. But are they less scared about physics now?” asks Beehler. “Now they have a good taste in their mouth, and some point later, they may take a physics class, as opposed to blowing it off and saying, ‘No. That stunk. I’m never going to go there ever again.”

Press release available here.


Physics student Ethan Lake awarded prestigious Hertz Fellowship

Ethan Lake becomes 2nd Hertz Fellow for the U.

Ethan Lake, an undergraduate student in physics and math at the University of Utah, has received the prestigious and highly competitive Hertz Fellowship, a $250,000 grant for up to five years of graduate study in the STEM fields. Lake is one of only 12 students nationally to receive this award and the second Hertz Fellow for the U. The first Hertz fellow was in 1989, when Eric Kelson received the award.

Etahn Lake applies his physics knowledge to defeat gravity. Here, Lake celebrates the victory atop a desert tower in Castle Valley, southern Utah.

“Ethan’s receipt of the Hertz Fellowship has opened the door for other U students to follow in his footsteps,” said Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the U. “We have no doubt Ethan will continue to make a significant contribution to research and be an excellent representative of our university and state.”

The Hertz Fellowship, established in 1963 by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, seeks to support America’s most promising students in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences who possess technical talent and the potential to solve difficult, real world problems. This year, 721 students applied and went through a rigorous merit-based process. The top 150 applicants were invited for an in-depth technical interview and of those, 40 were invited back for a second interview, with each interview increasing in difficulty.

“I found the application process, especially the interviews, to be intellectually rewarding and very enjoyable,” said Lake. “I would definitely encourage other students to apply.”

Lake’s passion for science began a world away in astrophysics. In his first year at the U, he joined professor Zheng Zheng’s computational astrophysics group where he studied the environments surrounding galaxies in the early universe and the gravitational microlensing of extrasolar asteroid belts.

“I’m extremely impressed by Ethan’s strong learning and research abilities and by his curiosity and creativity,” said Zheng. “He is truly exceptional.”

In the summer following his second year, Lake made an impulsive decision to switch to condensed matter theory, and began working on a problem in theoretical superconductivity with professors Dima Pesin and Oleg Starykh.

Ethan Lake, undergraduate student in physics and math, has received the prestigious and highly competitive Hertz Fellowship, a $250,000 grant for up to five years of graduate study in the STEM fields.

“Ethan has progressed steadily from a theoretical physics novice learning such basic theory as unitary transformations and second quantization to an expert in exotic p-wave superconductivity and many-body perturbation theory,” said Starykh. “This progress is truly amazing and in my experience, unprecedented.”

In fall 2015, Lake joined professor Yong-Shi Wu’s group to study topological quantum matter and in spring 2016 Lake was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater scholarship for excellence in STEM research. This past summer he attended the premier summer school on topological quantum matter at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the school’s 17-year history, Lake was one of only three undergraduate students invited to participate. He also participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergrads program with Michael Hermele, associate professor of physics, also at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“His strong interpersonal and collaborative skills are extraordinary for someone who has advanced to the frontiers of science so early in his career,” said Hermele. “Ethan is on a trajectory to become one of the leading lights of theoretical physics in the 21st century.”

During his undergraduate career, Lake has written six first-author publications with another three papers either submitted or in progress. Through his research, he has collaborated with scholars at various institutions around the world, including Princeton University, Caltech, CU Boulder, Peking University and Tokyo University.

Click here to see the full list of Ethan's publications on the arXiv.


“I’m very grateful to the mentors I’ve worked with for their constant patience, and I appreciate the freedom they’ve given me to explore and think about research problems independently,” added Lake.

Lake is currently studying the role that topology plays in condensed matter theory and quantum information theory. In this field, he has found a balance between his aptitude for abstract mathematics and his desire to work on problems that can be tested by experiment. He plans to perform related work in graduate school, while pursuing a doctorate in theoretical physics.

“I’m psyched to use the freedom this fellowship grants me to explore different areas of theoretical physics. Graduate school is going to be a ton of fun,” said Lake.

Official Announcement from the Hertz Foundation

* * * * *

Additionally, Ethan has also been awarded the 2017 College of Science Research Scholar Award, as well as the National Science Foundation's 2017 Graduate Research Fellowship. Click here to see the full list of awardees, and to learn more about the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

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