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Alumnus involved in black hole research returns to speak

On Tuesday, May 14, Carleton alumnus and former physics major Andrew Chael ’13 visited  campus to lecture regarding his ongoing research into the science and imaging of black holes.

Chael is a one of the leading members of the Imaging Working Group of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a global telescope network that focuses on observing two black hole targets: one at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy and another, Sagittarius A*, at the center of the Milky Way.

Focusing on the Messier 87 galaxy, the EHT Collaboration published the first-ever image of a black hole on Wednesday, April 10.

During his talk, Chael reflected upon this work with the EHT and the experience of “seeing” the black hole for the first time. The event was open to the public and was widely attended by members of the Carleton and greater Northfield communities.

“Chael offered to come as soon as the public announcement of the black hole image was made in April, and we were thrilled to have him come,” said Joel Weisberg, Herman and Gertrude Mosier Stark Professor of Physics and Astronomy and the Natural Sciences at Carleton.

Chael was a research student of Weisberg’s for several years and, according to Chael, Weisberg greatly influenced his decision to pursue physics.

“At Carleton I had a very hard time deciding between a major in physics or history,” Chael said. “In my sophomore spring, I declared a history major, but that summer, I did astronomy research with Weisberg.”

The research involved a trip to Australia to assist in operating the Parkes Radio Telescope. This exposure to “real problems and making real progress” helped Chael decide to switch majors from history to physics, and to continue his physics research.

Weisberg also helped Chael in planning his pursuits beyond Carleton.

“Joel was an incredible guide as I applied for graduate school,” Chael said. “I decided on Harvard because, while I didn’t know what research I wanted to end up doing, Harvard had strong groups in many areas I was interested in.”

According to Chael, his encounter and research with the EHT in his time at Harvard convinced him to join the project and small group of researchers.

His time with the team, however, did not prevent him from returning to Carleton.

Following his talk, both Weisberg and Cindy Blaha—a George H. and Marjorie F. Dixon Professor of Physics and Astronomy—remarked on the success of the talk.

“It was excellent,” Weisberg said. “He included information for people with a wide level of expertise and knowledge on the historic first image of a black hole. He is clearly a very skilled teacher.”

“Andrew expertly described the challenges of using the EHT to gather and analyze the data as well as the excitement of finally ‘seeing’ the M87 black hole,” Blaha added. “He did a great job engaging a large audience with a wide range of backgrounds. There were students, staff and faculty from around campus as well as high school teachers and students from Northfield and Randolph High Schools, along with interested members of the Northfield community. We all came away with new excitement and appreciation for the EHT image of the black hole.”

In addition to his black hole research, Chael is, according to his website, a member of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Outlist, a list of LGBTQ individuals within such fields. He is also a Resident Tutor at Harvard’s Dunster House where he helps advise undergraduates as to LGBTQ life on campus, along with navigating other academic subjects and pursuits at the University.

Regarding his visit back to Carleton’s Physics Department, Chael remarked on the department’s continuing efforts to increase its diversity.

“The spirit of the Carleton Physics Department is largely the same as when I was there,” Chael said. “I had some amazing conversations with students and faculty that reminded me of just how thoughtful and curious people at Carleton are.

“I gathered from some of my conversations back on campus that the department is more consciously and actively grappling with making the department and the field a welcoming and affirming place for people of color, women and LGBTQ people,” he added. “I heard about some great ways this work is being done: through extracurricular groups, class discussions and even problem sets. I’ve always been proud that my physics class at Carleton had a basically 50/50 women/men split, but I’ve realized more since I’ve graduated how much more work we need to do—and how much the entire field has to do—to make physics a place for everyone. I’m glad the department is working toward that more actively.”

Chael’s interests in equality and accessibility have been particularly noticeable in his recent online activism, which further demonstrates his “honesty and charcter,” according to Weisberg.

“He became famous in the blogosphere last month for defending a female scientific colleague against unfounded charges that she had undeservedly gotten more credit for the discovery than him, merely because she was a woman,” said Weisberg. “He tweeted, ‘So while I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I worked hard on for years, if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against [her], please go away and reconsider your priorities in life.’”

Moving forward, Chael plans to continue his research into black holes.

“Next year, I’m continuing my research on black holes as a NASA Einstein Fellow at Princeton University,” he said. “I’ll be carrying forward our research, with a focus on computer simulations of black holes that incorporate new plasma physics to predict and explain the rapid time evolution we observe from supermassive black holes.”

In regard to future plans for the EHT, Chael added that the two existing projects have much more planned for the near future.

“Our first goal is to finish work on data from our second black hole target, Sagittarius A* in the center of the Milky Way,” he said. “In the longer term, we are hoping to expand our array to new telescopes around the world, and, eventually, to put telescopes in orbit. New telescopes will increase our resolution, making our images sharper and the science we can do more precise.”

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