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Black hole fun: Physics professor talks landmark black hole image

May 2, 2019
Famous first black hole image
This image of a black hole more than 53 million light years away had the science world buzzing, including IUPUI’s Department of Physics.Image courtesy of National Science Foundation

On April 10, the entire scientific world – the entire scientific solar system – was buzzing about the now-familiar image of a black hole, its event horizon against an orange ring of gas and other materials as it devours everything within its reach from the center of galaxy M87.

The discovery had IUPUI’s Department of Physics talking. Yogesh Joglekar, an associate professor of physics and a theoretical physicist, leads a one-credit weekly physics seminar for first-year honors students. The image culled from the Event Horizon Telescope system and research from more than 200 astronomers and astrophysicists from around the world, including a major algorithmic contribution from scientist and Indiana native Katie Bouman, had the students talking for weeks.

Yogesh Joglekar
Associate professor of physics Yogesh Joglekar says his first-year physics students were excited and inspired by the landmark black hole image.Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

Joglekar, who also teaches graduate classes, believes major scientific discoveries like the image of a black hole inspire his students as well as high school students. These discoveries help spark research passions in young minds.

Q: What was your initial reaction when the black hole image was released?

Yogesh Joglekar: I thought it was a really amazing, impressive piece of joint work – the fact that we can use the whole Earth, effectively, as a camera because you have these different laboratories all taking data. Essentially, you have an Earth-sized aperture.

This galaxy is so far away – 53 million light years away – and its size is not very big. It corresponds to resolving a quarter on the moon. To be able to take a picture of a quarter on the moon requires some technology. It’s amazing that they could do that.

Q: What do you cover in your weekly honors seminar?

YJ: We mostly learn about special relativity and quantum physics. It’s more for freshman students to become interested in what the new developments in science are. In their regular classes, they are learning about stuff that’s 300, 400 years old, basically, like Newton’s laws, pulleys, inclined planes. Sometimes they don’t get to the new and exciting stuff until they are juniors and seniors or even in graduate school. We want this course to introduce them to all of the interesting stuff going on.

Q: What did they think of the exposure Katie Bouman, a young scientist with Hoosier roots, is getting?

YJ: We have almost 50 percent women in the class, and they were very interested that Bouman created the algorithm. These kinds of role models really help move the ball forward in terms of eliminating the asymmetry in gender in science, particularly in physics.

Q: The black hole image seemed to make a huge impact nationally. Does science discovery get more mainstream notice than it did a generation ago?

YJ: I think that nowadays, the news spreads better because it’s no longer confined to just journal articles. It is important – especially in today’s environment, where the value of science is being challenged by conventional wisdom over expert opinion – to explain the work, efforts and understanding of doing something at this level. For example, when gravitational waves were first detected a couple of years ago, most of my students learned about it through their Facebook feeds. That gets their attention, they read more about it, and then we discuss it.

Q: How does your seminar help the students later in their academic careers?

YJ: My focus, generally speaking, is to get kids interested in research irrespective of the subject of research. To some extent, the division between fields is just bookkeeping made by us. Nature doesn’t care. When it comes to quantum computing, for example, it is at the intersection, today, of many subjects. You need physics to do the modeling. You need electrical engineering, for the most part, to be able to do the devices – the electronics and technology. You need mathematics and computer science to establish theories and algorithms to provide examples where quantum computers are better.

Q: What are you working on these days?

YJ: Quantum technologies are becoming a potentially explosive area in the near future, another 10 or 20 years. For example: Last year, Congress passed this National Quantum Initiative Act, which is going to be funding significant work on quantum technologies and devices. We will be working on some part of this, exploring different quantum effects and different realizations of quantum simulators and computers.

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