Can massive stars shine light on Earth’s burning issues?

15 Aug 2023

Star-forming nebula NGC 346. Image: ESA/

Astronomer Dr Jorick Vink believes that studying the stars is a valuable endeavour in and of itself, but it might also provide answers to some pressing questions closer to home.

Dr Jorick Vink is a senior research astronomer at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

After completing a master’s degree in Utrecht University, he undertook an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US, before returning to Utrecht to complete his PhD. Stints at Imperial College London and Keele University followed, and he joined the observatory in 2007.

Vink leads the XShootU consortium, an international team of astronomers working with data on massive stars from the Hubble Ullyses programme. Just last month, the consortium, in collaboration with the Space Telescope Science Institute, published a major study in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal.

The study investigated the most massive stars in our local dwarf galaxies, the small and large magellanic clouds, using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Speaking at the time of the publication, Vink described the research as a “game-changer for our physical understanding of massive stars at low [metallicity]”.

Tell us about your current research.

I’m fascinated by the heaviest stars and black holes. Black holes are the endpoints of massive stars, when their cores have collapsed and light can no longer escape from the severe gravitational pull.

At the start of my research career, I created models of the outflow properties of massive stars and studied their effects on the properties of the stars themselves.

I’m incredibly interested in the evolution of the most massive stars and their endpoints as heavy black holes. When gravitational waves from an ‘impossibly’ heavy black hole, weighing 85 times the mass of the Sun, were discovered two years ago, my team made the first attempts to explain this.

Within days of the announcement, two of my team members had replicated the black hole on their computers.

‘The scientific method indicates that we should always try to test certain hypotheses, rather than jump to preconceived conclusions’

Today, we spend a lot of time working on the outflows and black-hole formation from the most massive stars as a function of cosmic time. This is to gain an understanding of the origins of our universe, from the Big Bang to galaxies such as our own Milky Way.

For this, we use computer models, as well as data from the most prestigious telescopes on Earth and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Understanding stars is important for many reasons. First and foremost, humans are uniquely capable of asking questions about the world around them, where they came from and where they’re heading. It would be utterly disappointing to not pursue these queries.

But there are also more pragmatic reasons, like developing various technologies and possibly even resolving some of the biggest challenges we face as a species, such as those around fossil fuels.

Ideally, humans would create cheap and clean energy, and nuclear fusion could help us to discover how to do this. To achieve this, we would need to imitate the processes that occur inside stars.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

From an early age I was interested in the big questions, like how large is the universe? How did it start? Where are we going? Just prior to going to university, I learned about the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and that was the catalyst that spurred me on to study astronomy and astrophysics.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the biggest challenges is that many people do not quite understand how science works. Some seem to think that it is all about facts, but it isn’t. It is actually about the process of finding facts.

Dr Jorick Vink stand at a podium with a laptop open and a microphone in front of him. He wears a white short-sleeved shirt and a lanyard around his neck and rests his hands on either side of the podium. He smiles at the camera.

Dr Jorick Vink. Image: Liam McArdle

Whilst this process is ongoing, it is usually difficult to exactly predict what the outcome will be.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

In my opinion, researchers could engage more with the public and rather than selling science as fact, they should focus on communicating its processes and explain how the scientific method is supposed to work.

Basically, the method indicates that we should always try to test certain hypotheses, rather than jump to preconceived conclusions. I think this is absolutely crucial to keeping our liberal societies operating in a healthy manner.

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