North Middlesex grad working to crack secrets of exploding stars

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PEPPERELL — For 50 years, scientists have been researching the ins and outs of a massive star explosion. Bit by bit, various theories were developed in an attempt to explain the astronomical phenomenon, but after further evidential exploration, they have fallen short on accuracy — until now.

Dr. Jason Nordhaus, North Middlesex Regional High School class of 1999, is now a post-doctoral research fellow at Princeton University working with theorist Adam Burrows. Thanks to new simulation computers, Nordhaus and Burrows, along with colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, have discovered a way to explore the supernovae explosions in three-dimensional simulations. This ability has allowed the team to look at the star’s behavior in a very different perspective.

“These are very complicated physical systems where radiation and matter interact at high densities,” said Nordhaus.

He compared a supernova to a pot of boiling water. The pot starts off with the water being very still inside until different reactions cause the water to bubble around.

“In a star, the fluid is composed of neutrons and protons. There are particles called neutrinos that come out of the core and interact with the fluid. The fluid absorbs the neutrinos and starts to boil like the pot of water.”

The physics associated with how a massive star dies is so complex it needs to be simulated with computers. The turbulence that is generated inside of a pot of boiling water, so to speak, looks fundamentally different in 3-D than it does in in two dimensions. Nordhaus said that simulating it in 3-D has a big impact on the coupling of the neutrinos to the matter in the star.

For years, astronomers have used the large simulations to try and better understand the intricacy of a star’s death, but found themselves running into problems because they were looking at the star in a two-dimensional way.

Nordhaus and his team have recently conducted these simulations in a third dimension and have found there to be an extremely large difference.

According to an article written by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “the new simulations are based on the idea that the collapsing star itself is not sphere-like, but distinctly asymmetrical and affected by a host of inabilities in the volatile mix surrounding its core.”

Nordhaus’ 3-D simulation gives astrophysicists a closer look at the star’s development and expansion. In the same Lawrence Berkeley article, Burrows is quoted in saying: “Visualization is crucial. Otherwise, all you have is merely a jumble of numbers. It allows one to diagnose the dynamics, so that the event is not only visualized, but understood.”

It is just recently that Nordhaus’ scientific research has made national news. He’s been researching supernovae explosions for the last two years and started integrating 3-D simulations about six months ago.

“My job is to figure things out about the universe, and this is one of the things I’ve been working on recently,” he said.

Nordhaus has always been interested in math and science, but it was not until college that he had decided on the path of astrophysics.

“It really opened my eyes and I decided I wanted to study things that were completely unknown. You can’t get more unknown than what happens in the universe.”

He said that a career in science, whether it be astronomy or not, is a smart path for students to take. Although it requires hard work and several sleepless nights, the field is fairly lucrative and it gives someone a broad set of skills to use throughout his or her life.

Nordhaus received his doctorate in theoretical astrophysics from the University of Rochester in New York. He is also a U.S. Congressional Goldwater science scholar. The purpose of this title is to provide a continuing source of highly qualified individuals in the fields of science, math and engineering.

His work has appeared in publications such as Nature magazine, Time and NPR.

If you would like to read some of the papers Jason Nordhaus has written, you can find them on his site: http://www.astro.princeton.edu/~nordhaus/Home.html.