Astronomers Map the Universe With the Brightest Objects in the Sky

Astronomers with the international, multi-institutional Sloan Digital Sky Survey have used the world's largest sample of quasars to map a previously uncharted region of the universe. Quasars are brilliant, distant points of light powered by supermassive black holes at their centers. As matter and energy fall into a quasar’s black hole, they heat up to incredible temperatures and glow brighter than anything else in the universe. That luminescence is captured by a 2.5 meter-diameter telescope on a mountaintop in New Mexico here on Earth.

Kyle Dawson, associate professor

Kyle Dawson, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah, is the lead U.S. scientist on this cosmology project. He led the team to prepare and acquire the data for more than 147,000 quasars using the telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. His group oversaw the survey planning, observations, and software that turned the photons of light emitted by the quasars into data that can be understood by the rest of the team.

“Quasars are like bright, little lighthouses spread around the galaxy,” says Dawson. “We use them like beacons to see where matter is distributed in the universe.”

From the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) website.

"Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have created the first map of the large-scale structure of the Universe based entirely on the positions of quasars. Quasars are the incredibly bright and distant points of light powered by supermassive black holes.

“Because quasars are so bright, we can see them all the way across the Universe,” said Ashley Ross of the Ohio State University, the co-leader of the study. “That makes them the ideal objects to use to make the biggest map yet.”

The amazing brightness of quasars is due to the supermassive black holes found at their centers. As matter and energy fall into a quasar’s black hole, they heat up to incredible temperatures and begin to glow. It is this bright glow that is detected by a dedicated 2.5-meter telescope here on Earth.

A slice through largest-ever three-dimensional map of the Universe. Earth is at the left, and distances to galaxies and quasars are labelled by the lookback time to the objects (lookback time means how long the light from an object has been traveling to reach us here on Earth). The locations of quasars (galaxies with supermassive black holes) are shown by the red dots, and nearer galaxies mapped by SDSS are also shown (yellow).
The right-hand edge of the map is the limit of the observable Universe, from which we see the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the light “left over” from the Big Bang. The bulk of the empty space in between the quasars and the edge of the observable universe are from the “dark ages”, prior to the formation of most stars, galaxies, or quasars. Click on the image for a larger version.
Image Credit: Anand Raichoor (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland) and the SDSS collaboration

“These quasars are so far away that their light left them when the Universe was between three and seven billion years old, long before the Earth even existed,” said Gongbo Zhao from the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences, the study’s other co-leader.

To make their map, scientists used the Sloan Foundation Telescope to observe an unprecedented number of quasars. During the first two years of the SDSS’s Extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (eBOSS), astronomers measured accurate three-dimensional positions for more than 147,000 quasars.

The telescope’s observations gave the team the quasars’ distances, which they used to create a three-dimensional map of where the quasars are. But to use the map to understand the expansion history of the Universe, they had to go a step further, using a clever technique involving studying “baryon acoustic oscillations” (BAOs). BAOs are the present-day imprint of sound waves which travelled through the early Universe, when it was much hotter and denser than the Universe we see today. But when the Universe was 380,000 years old, conditions changed suddenly and the sound waves became “frozen” in place. These frozen waves are left imprinted in the three-dimensional structure of the Universe we see today.

The good news about these frozen waves – the original baryon acoustic oscillations – is that the process that produced them is simple. Thus, we have a good understanding of what BAOs must have looked like at that ancient time. When we look at the three-dimensional structure of the Universe today, it contains these same BAOs grown out to a huge scale by the expansion of the Universe. The observed size of the BAO can be used as a “standard ruler” to measure distances. Just as by using the apparent angle of a meter stick viewed from the other side of a football field, you can estimate the length of the field. “You have meters for small units of length, kilometres or miles for distances between cities, and we have the BAO scale for distances between galaxies and quasars in cosmology,” explained Pauline Zarrouk, a PhD student at the Irfu/CEA, University Paris-Saclay, who measured the projected BAO scale.

Astronomers from the SDSS have previously used the BAO technique on nearby galaxies and then on intergalactic gas distributions to push this analysis farther and farther back in time. The current results cover a range of times where they have never been observed before, measuring the conditions when the Universe more than two billion years before the Earth formed.

The results of the new study confirm the standard model of cosmology that researchers have built over the last twenty years. In this standard model, the Universe follows the predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — but includes components whose effects we can measure, but whose causes we do not understand. Along with the ordinary matter that makes up stars and galaxies, the Universe includes dark matter – invisible yet still affected by gravity – and a mysterious component called “Dark Energy.” Dark Energy is the dominant component at the present time, and it has special properties that cause the expansion of the Universe to speed up.

“Our results are consistent with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity” said Hector Gil-Marin, a researcher from the Laboratoire de Physique Nucléaire et de hautes Énergies in Paris who undertook key parts of the analysis. “We now have BAO measurements covering a range of cosmological distances, and they all point to the same thing: the simple model matches the observations very well.”

Even though we understand how gravity works, we still do not understand everything – there is still the question of what exactly dark energy is. “We would like to understand Dark Energy further,” said Will Percival from the University of Portsmouth, who is the eBOSS survey scientist. “Surveys like eBOSS are helping us to build up our understanding of how dark energy fits into the story of the Universe.”

The eBOSS experiment is still continuing, using the Sloan Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, USA. As astronomers with eBOSS observe more quasars and nearby galaxies, the size of their map will continue to increase. After eBOSS is complete, a new generation of sky surveys will begin, including the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) and the European Space Agency Euclid satellite mission. These will increase the fidelity of the maps by a factor of ten compared with eBOSS, revealing the Universe and Dark Energy in unprecedented detail."

Kyle Dawson's post-doctoral researchers whom also worked on this project are:
Julian Bautista: oversees development, maintenance, and operations of the software to process all of the spectra from eBOSS
Vivek Mariappan: coordinates all preparation, operations and observing planning for eBOSS"

Read the full press release on the SDSS website


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.


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