From dark to stars: Exploring the infancy of the cosmos

16 Nov 2018

Image: Dr Emma O Chapman

Dr Emma O Chapman is exploring the ‘early childhood’ of the universe and tackling harassment in higher education. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Imagine not knowing about your early childhood. What if there was little concrete evidence of your baby and toddler years, and the first clear picture of your existence was around the time you started school.

That is pretty much where we are with our understanding of the universe. We currently have little insight into what happened between the Big Bang and the ‘cosmic dawn’ around 400m years later, a period during which the first generation of stars formed. These large stars lived fast and died young, eventually giving way to more complex stars that forged heavier chemical elements.

‘Ultimately, we want to create a home movie of those first billion years of the universe’

“It is the baby steps of the universe,” explained Dr Emma O Chapman, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow now based at Imperial College London.

“The universe entered into the dark ages almost immediately after the Big Bang, then gas started to come together and form clumps, nuclear reactions took place and you get lights blinking on all over the universe – like someone switched on the Christmas lights,” she said. “That whole period of the dark ages, the cosmic dawn and the first stars covers about a billion years, and the caveat is that we have hardly any data.”

In that period, the structures we see today such as supermassive black holes were in their own infancy, Chapman added. “You had holes forming, eventually growing to be the supermassive beasts we see in the centre of the milky way and other spiral galaxies.”

Mind-blowing cosmology

Chapman wants to fill these gaps in our knowledge by picking up on the signatures of those early changes. This is possible with the help of data from simulations and radio telescopes such as Europe’s LOFAR (Low-Frequency Array), which now includes an Irish node at Birr Castle, and the planned Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in Australia and South Africa.

“My day-to-day work is on current radio telescopes to try and detect the signatures of these first stars, and we are building a new much bigger telescope [the SKA] to build up the images of the very early universe. Ultimately, we want to create a home movie of those first billion years.”

Chapman ‘fell into’ physics as a school student when she read about special relativity in her teens (her other career might have been as an Egyptologist).

“My mind was blown that when you moved fast you aged slower. I didn’t understand this at all and I thought ,well, they are not teaching me it at school so I will go to university and study it there,” she said.

Once at university, more mind-blowing revelations about the sheer scale of the universe, and the mysteries of how the cosmos started set Chapman on course for studying astronomy. Today, her love of the subject is evident, as is her enjoyment of doing public outreach.

Challenging harassment

But there has been a darker side, too. Chapman experienced sexual harassment while doing her PhD at a different university, and she mounted a legal challenge to the institutional handling of case. “It was important for me to be able to personally protect my career and my reputation,” she said. “The only way I could see this ever changing for people coming through the system next is if there was more accountability from the university.”

The legal challenge involved waiving her anonymity, and she described how it is difficult to speak up and move on in such a specialist field. “When someone takes it upon themselves to harass you in a niche field, it doesn’t end,” she said. “That person doesn’t go away, and you can’t just go and get a job in a completely different field. Every day is a constant reminder.”

Chapman now plays an active role in creating a safer environment for staff and students in higher education in the UK as part of the 1752 Group, which lobbies for a safer environment, codes of conduct and processes to protect against staff-student harassment and sexual misconduct.

“We are not the police. This is about creating a safe framework that protects everyone,” said Chapman. “That includes protecting people who do enter into relationships consensually, so that if that happens their careers are protected.”

Find your quest

Chapman has won several accolades for her science and advocacy including the Institute of Physics Very Early Career Woman Physicist of the Year Award in 2014 and a Royal Society Athena Prize in 2018 for “driving nationally impactful policy changes concerning sexual harassment issues in higher education”.

Her advice to students with an interest in science is to take time to find the subjects you enjoy and view your career not as a single path but one where you can make decisions and change directions.

“The main thing is to do something you enjoy and where you want to find the answer,” she said. “Along the way, don’t be afraid to try something new, take time out and do apprenticeships.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication