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Brockport astrophysicist researches galaxies 2 billion lightyears away

by Margaret Stewart
Tue, Sep 10th 2019 11:00 pm

At four-years-old, Physics Department Chair and Associate Professor Eric Monier (PhD) knew he wanted to work with the stars.

“Astronomy is something I have always loved,” Monier said. “I mean I was four years old and had a birthday cake with stars and telescopes on it so that’s what I told my parents I was gonna do.”

Like many undergraduates, Monier was concerned about making money when he finished his degree.

“In highschool I kind of got seduced by the idea of a job that would make a lot of money,” Monier said. “So I went into engineering in college.” 

After entering the working world, Monier figured out engineering was not what he really wanted to do. 

“I went back and finished my [Bachelor of Science] BS in physics and then went to graduate school for Astrophysics,” Monier said. “I took an astronomy class with Dave Turnshek and he put a note on my final exam saying ‘if you’re interested in doing some summer research come see me.’ So I started research with him that summer and I stuck with it.”

Many students are sucked into the field in a similar manner. Physics major Nolan Coble originally came to The College at Brockport for biochemistry but was required to take a physics course.

“I had to take Physics II for that major,” Coble said. “I did not know anything about the department before that.”

Monier worked alongside Turnshek researching quasars, and Monier carried those studies with him to his post-doctorate at Ohio State University.

“I was working on quasar surveys trying to find some that are more distant,” Monier said.

According to Monier, quasars are distant galaxies that have “supermassive” black holes at their centers causing them to be very bright. The term “supermassive” is used as the black holes are a billion times more massive than the sun. 

Scientists can identify specific elements found in quasars. Depending upon the width of the graphical line, be it narrow or wide, the type of absorption line is defined. Broad absorption lines indicate gases that are flowing out of the quasar.

On this research Monier is collaborating with his mentor Turnshek and Sandhya Rao both from the University of Pittsburgh, on this research. They are currently trying to define how large the broad absorption field is for a specific quasar as there currently is no direct measurement for it.

“You can use quasars for different things, a lot of my research is using them as a bright background source and observing the gas between you and the quasar,” Monier said. “How it [the gas] gets absorbed as the light passes through it.”

Monier explained the model for quasars in order to put his research into perspective. 

“There is a disc of gas that is kind of spiraling in [on itself],” Monier said. “It [the disc] gets heated up through friction and forces and emits a lot of light.”

Monier and his colleagues have been granted time with the Hubble Telescope in order to observe a galaxy about two billion lightyears away.

“This Hubble project is looking at the quasar itself trying to figure out something about how quasars work,” Monier said. “Even though they were first identified 50 years ago, there are still many things about them that remain to be explained.”

Theoretically, if the broad absorption field is large enough, Monier will be able to use the Hubble Telescope to get a picture of the light emission which will allow for a direct measurement of how big the broad absorption field is.

Monier has been teaching at Brockport for 15 years and helped inspire students like Andrew Rowley pursue their passion for physics and outer space.

“I have always had an interest in astrophysics and astronomy,” Rowley said. “This interest has grown during my time at Brockport as I have learned more about astrophysics indirectly through other physics classes.”

Though the department is rather small, it is creating more competition for opportunities like summer research projects Both Rowley and Coble have found the more personalized program helpful as they value the readily accessible one-on-one time. 

“Because of how small the department is I am able to build good relationships with the faculty,” Coble said. “They are always willing to answer any questions that I may have and are usually available to do so.”

The department works hard preparing the next generation of students for life after Brockport.

“The effort of the department to teach you proper research techniques as well as professional writing skills and etiquette really makes a difference,” Rowley said. “In the last few years, most graduates from the department have gone on to grad school or immediately found jobs in the private sector.”

Monier and his colleagues plan to continue their research with the Hubble Telescope in early 2020.

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