Next generation of astronomy and physics leaders recognised

Energy from a collapsing supernova is radiated in the form of neutrinos, produced when protons and electrons in the nucleus combine to form neutrons

The latest cohort of Ernest Rutherford Fellows have been awarded funding to take on some of the biggest challenges in their fields.

Ten promising early career academics have received fellowships to establish new independent research programmes which will hone their leadership abilities and give them the opportunity to conduct cutting edge science.

The £6 million total investment marks the 13th consecutive year that the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have awarded the prestigious Ernest Rutherford Fellowships.

Asking important questions

The Ernest Rutherford Fellowships are designed to support researchers to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge using innovative and pioneering research methods.

This year’s fellows will tackle questions such as:

  • what can the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and upcoming European Space Agency (ESA) Euclid mission tell us about dark matter?
  • are neutrinos a door to physics beyond the standard model?
  • how can we maximise the capability of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)?
  • what are the fundamental processes governing giant planets in our solar system?

Harnessing potential

Professor Mark Thomson, STFC Executive Chair, said:

In order to tackle the challenges facing society, it is essential that we realise the enormous potential of our talented early career researchers.

These fellowships will do exactly this by supporting some of the brightest minds in physics and astronomy to turn ambitious ideas into reality.

Our new Ernest Rutherford fellows are leading examples of the UK’s globally recognised scientific community and it is exciting to think what discoveries they might make in the coming years.

Since 2012:

  • 96% of fellows who were employed had secured a permanent contract after their fellowship
  • at least 94% each year found that their fellowship was essential or very helpful to obtain their current position

Further information

Meet the Ernest Rutherford Fellows

Searching for new physics with muons

Dr Alexander Keshavarzi, The University of Manchester

The Standard Model of particle physics is humanity’s best and most tested theory of all the known particles and forces.

It cannot however explain the observed Universe.

Understanding phenomena such as the existence of dark matter or the unexplained dominance of matter over antimatter in the Universe requires new physics beyond the Standard Model: new particles, forces, or interactions.

Growing tensions in interactions involving muons (the heavy cousin of the electron) and low-energy hadrons (particles bound by the strong nuclear force) are providing a corroborating indication of disagreement with the Standard Model that could provide answers.

Dr Keshavarzi will undertake experimental physics research to study various interactions of muons at the Muon g-2 and Mu2e Experiments at Fermilab (US), and the proposed MuEDM Experiment at PSI (Switzerland).

He will also perform independent theoretical physics research to better understand low-energy hadronic physics in a bid to produce the most precise ever characterisation of low-energy hadronic interactions.

Another objective of the research is to release related open access software to facilitate precision measurements at future particle physics experiments.

Taken together, his research will probe a wide range of particle interactions and energy scales with the aim of producing an unprecedented sensitivity to numerous new physics scenarios that could explain the observed Universe.

Probing the charge radii of proton emitters for the first time

Dr Kara Lynch, The University of Manchester

What is the shape of the nucleus in the moments before it emits a proton? How does the shape of the nucleus change when the proton becomes unbound?

Dr Kara Lynch aims to answer these questions by performing the first laser spectroscopy studies on proton-emitting nuclei, bringing a powerful technique into a new research domain.

At the edges of the nuclear landscape, a rare form of radioactive decay occurs where the nucleus emits a proton.

Studying proton-emitting nuclei with laser spectroscopy provides a new and exciting opportunity to test the fundamental properties of the nuclear force.

Laser spectroscopy measures the hyperfine structure of atoms, an atomic fingerprint that allows nuclear properties to be measured in a nuclear-model-independent way.

For example, the charge radius tells us about the proton distribution in the nucleus.

Dr Lynch aims to understand the effect of the proton on the nucleus before it is emitted. Dr Lynch will gain a unique insight into how this single proton can influence the behaviour of the whole nucleus by measuring nuclei across the proton-drip line (beyond which proton decay occurs).

These measurements will provide a powerful test for state-of-the-art nuclear theories, constraining the nuclear wave function and providing a significant insight into the complex system that is the nucleus.

Neutrinos as a door to physics beyond the Standard Model

Dr Marco Del Tutto, University of Oxford

Particle physics is humankind’s effort to understand the fundamental nature of the Universe and address its biggest scientific questions.

It is this effort which led to the Standard Model of particle physics which is the best and most tested theory of the particles that make up all things.

The Standard Model cannot however explain many phenomena such as neutrino masses and the existence of dark matter which show it to be incomplete, and far from the final theory of everything.

Looking for physics beyond the Standard Model (BSM) therefore is the goal of modern particle physics.

Dr Del Tutto will perform a comprehensive search to look for BSM physics, focused on studying the least understood particles of all: neutrinos.

Neutrinos, Italian for ‘little neutral ones’, are the tiniest of all the elementary particles discovered.

Dr Del Tutto will study neutrinos using state-of-the-art detectors for neutrino physics, LArTPCs, at the Short-Baseline Neutrino programme at Fermilab.

Dr Del Tutto’s research strategy includes:

  • machine learning models to reconstruct LArTPC data
  • novel analysis techniques to analyse this data
  • a research and development effort to push the LArTPC technology even further, by equipping the detector with a magnetic field

Dr Del Tutto hopes to make LArTPCs the ultimate detector for neutrino and BSM physics.

New portals to the dark sector

Dr Ennio Salvioni, University of Sussex

The existence of a ‘dark matter’ component of the Universe has been firmly established by astronomers, but its particle properties are still unknown.

Another mystery is the origin of the Higgs field, which we know permeates the Universe and gives every particle its mass, but lacks a deeper understanding.

The answers to these big questions may be contained in a ‘dark sector’ which comprises a set of new particles that only communicate with the visible part of the Universe through feeble interactions called portals.

There are several prominent experiments planned in the coming years which have the potential to open these portals for the first time, discovering the dark sector and revolutionising fundamental physics.

Dr Salvioni will support this effort by working to develop new theoretical ideas for the dark sector, identifying targets for upcoming searches and incorporating the outcomes into models that describe nature at a fundamental level.

The primary aims of Dr Salvioni’s research are to address two key theories:

  • firstly, that if one of the heaviest known particles, such as the Higgs boson, holds the key to the portal, that the dark sector could be discovered with new data from particle accelerators or searches for dark matter particles
  • secondly, that if the gravitational force acts as the portal, mapping the distribution of galaxies in the Universe can provide new insights on the so-far elusive nature of dark matter. This will be achieved using the next generation of galaxy surveys

Revealing the nature of dark matter with JWST and Euclid

Dr James Nightingale, Newcastle University

The mysterious nature of dark matter, which interacts via only gravity and is invisible to the human eye, is one of the most puzzling questions in modern astrophysics and cosmology.

On the Universe’s largest scales, observations have revealed that dark matter makes up approximately 85% of the Universe’s total mass.

On smaller scales, however, astronomers do not know how much dark matter there is, or if it’s even there at all.

Dr Nightingale seeks to provide this insight.

In the widely accepted ‘cold dark matter’ paradigm, the expectation is that thousands of small dark matter clumps are distributed throughout the Universe.

Alternative dark matter models predict that these small dark matter clumps are missing, meaning that on small scales the Universe appears smooth.

Using imaging from NASA’s JWST and ESA’s Euclid space mission, Dr Nightingale will study gravitational lenses or distant galaxies whose light is distorted by any mass it passes on its journey through the universe.

If dark matter does exist in clumps as predicted, this will show as distortions in the light of each gravitational lens.

If dark matter is smooth however, so will be the light of each gravitational lens.

As a spin-off to his cosmology research, Dr Nightingale works in close collaboration with NHS healthcare researchers, developing new cancer therapies on an Innovate UK clinical trial.

Cosmology and cancer researchers face the same scientific challenges of developing new statistical techniques which can extract meaningful information from extremely large imaging datasets.

His research therefore seeks to further our understanding of the universe and improve lives.

Thermal, suprathermal, and energetic particle dynamics in space plasmas

Dr Luca Franci, Imperial College London

Solar wind is the flow of charged particles blowing away from the Sun and throughout the solar system in an area known as the heliosphere.

This is one of the most accessible plasma environments in the Universe and therefore a unique laboratory for space plasma research.

Solar Orbiter and Parker Solar Probe are two record-breaking ESA and NASA missions with significant UK involvement.

They aim to provide unparalleled measurements of the environment closer to the sun than ever before.

Dr Franci will use data from both missions to address two crucial and long-standing questions on the heliosphere:

  • how are particles energised and accelerated in the heliosphere?
  • how do energetic particles travel through the heliosphere?

He aims to disentangle different candidate processes by combining ground-breaking observations and innovative 3D simulations performed on powerful supercomputers, which will return essential information that is inaccessible from spacecraft.

The goal of the research is to improve our understanding of the processes that are at the basis of space weather. This will allow for more accurate forecasts as well as to determine the design and planning of future heliospheric missions.

Dr Franci also hopes to help answer other central open questions related to particle dynamics in the heliosphere such as:

  • why is the Sun’s atmosphere hundreds of times hotter than its surface?
  • how is solar wind accelerated to up to 800 kilometres per second?

Characterising the galactic population of binary white dwarf stars: a treasure chest for constraining stellar evolution

Dr Ingrid Pelisoli, The University of Warwick

A large fraction of the stars in the night sky are binary systems: two stars sharing an orbit, moving too close to each other for our eyes to separate them.

This includes the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, which is a pair containing a main sequence star, such as our Sun, and a white dwarf, which is a fossil of stellar evolution.

These binary systems containing a white dwarf are responsible for some of the most impressive and informative astrophysical phenomena.

They are the progenitors of the supernovae that allowed us to measure the accelerated expansion of the Universe.

They are sources of gravitational waves or ripples in spacetime whose recent direct detection provided us a new way to probe the Universe.

More generally, their evolution gives origin to stellar populations with extreme properties that can pose a challenge to our astrophysical models.

White dwarfs in binaries are therefore excellent tools to understand phenomena such as:

  • the cosmology shaping our Universe
  • the fundamental physics of gravity
  • astrophysical models of various stellar populations

However, to take full advantage of their potential, we need to first carry out a detailed census of the population of white dwarfs in binaries.

Dr Pelisoli will use a range of new and upcoming large astrophysical surveys to complete this task.

She will characterise tens of thousands of binaries, obtaining the stellar masses and orbital periods for these systems.

Dr Pelisoli’s research aims to answer some key open questions in our understanding of the Universe, such as:

  • what types of white dwarf binary systems can cause supernovae explosions?
  • can we directly detect gravitational waves from stellar binaries in our galaxy?
  • how do binary stars interact over their lifetime?

A route to high luminosity: terahertz-frequency ultrashort bunch trains for novel accelerators

Dr Morgan Hibberd, The University of Manchester

Novel particle accelerators which exploit phenomena known as plasma-wakefields can offer up to a 1,000 times higher accelerating gradient than conventional technology.

This provides a route to drastically shrink the size and cost of future particle accelerators.

However, as these new types of compact particle accelerator operate at much higher terahertz (THz) frequencies, the process of injecting the initial particle bunches into the accelerating cavity becomes extremely challenging. It requires shorter bunches with precise timing synchronisation beyond current capability.

Dr Morgan Hibberd’s research aims to address this challenge by exploiting powerful laser-generated pulses of THz radiation to manipulate relativistic electron bunches on an ultrafast timescale, enabling optimal injection into novel accelerators.

His research will utilise the Compact Linear Accelerator for Research and Applications (CLARA) linear accelerator test facility at STFC Daresbury Laboratory.

It will demonstrate THz-driven ultrashort single and multibunch generation schemes, before targeting injection into the proton-driven plasma-wakefields of the Advanced Wakefield Experiment (AWAKE) at CERN.

The primary objective of this work is to unlock the full capability of compact novel accelerator technology, providing diverse opportunities for high-energy research and applications currently limited to large-scale facilities.

Maximising the new physics reach of the LHC through Effective Field Theories

Dr Ken Mimasu, STFC Laboratories

Ten years after the ground-breaking discovery of the Higgs boson, we are still working to understand the fundamental building blocks of our Universe.

While the current theory, called the Standard Model, has been supported by data from the LHC at CERN, evidence suggests there may be more to discover.

Instead of looking for new particles directly, researchers like Dr Mimasu are looking for small changes in the interactions between known particles to infer the presence of new particles or forces.

This approach, called the Standard Model Effective Field Theory, is one of the key pillars of the LHC physics programme.

Dr Mimasu’s research will focus on exploring the data from collider experiments to uncover new physics via new interactions.

To do this, he aims to develop a tool for making cutting-edge theoretical predictions and a framework for statistical interpretation of the data.

His goal is to combine hundreds of measurements to narrow down the space of all possible modified interactions and draw robust conclusions about physics beyond the Standard Model.

Using Effective Field Theory techniques, Dr Mimasu will also investigate several theoretical scenarios that aim to address open problems in particle physics.

These include the nature of dark matter and the evolution of the Higgs field in the early Universe.

Fundamental processes at giant planets in the solar system and beyond: global heating and Saturn’s raining rings

Dr James O’Donoghue, University of Reading

Atmospheres are crucial for habitability in the solar system.

The escape of gas to space, which occurs in the upper atmosphere, determines how stable atmospheres are over time, with higher temperatures driving more escape.

The upper atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn receive less than 4% the amount of sunlight as Earth, so they should be a frigid -70°C, but instead, everywhere is measured to be over 200°C.

This means that the Sun, which is responsible for most of the heating in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, is not the main source of heating in the uppermost parts of these worlds.

This poses the question of so what the missing energy sources at the giant planets could be.

This problem has existed for 50 years, illustrating that our knowledge of atmospheres is, in general, shallow.

Dr O’Donoghue aims to address this by using some of the world’s most powerful telescopes to observe the largest processes known to affect global upper atmospheric temperatures.

Quantifying the sources of heating in order to explain the anomalously high temperatures recorded at Jupiter and Saturn is the main goal of Dr O’Donoghue’s proposed research.

Alongside this, the destruction rate of Saturn’s rings will also be tracked, in a bid to accurately determine the lifetime of Saturn’s rings.

Overall Dr O’Donoghue aims to add to our knowledge of planetary atmospheres in general, which helps us to understand the evolution of planets in our solar system, and beyond.

Top image:  Credit: Naeblys, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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