Renowned Astrophysicist Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Astronomy
29 July 2010
One of the world’s leading experts in the search for the oldest stars of the Milky Way, Prof. Dr. Timothy C. Beers of Michigan State University in East Lansing (USA), has received a research award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation enabling him to engage in research at Heidelberg University. At the university’s Centre for Astronomy the American scientist will be cooperating with Prof. Dr. Norbert Christlieb of the Observatory at Königsstuhl. After a three-month sojourn in summer 2010, Prof. Beers will be returning to Heidelberg for the summer months over the next three years.
Fundamental issues in astronomy lie at the heart of the research work to be undertaken jointly by Prof. Beers and Prof. Christlieb. They revolve around the processes that took place during the Big Bang and the properties of the first stars in the universe. Other topics to be addressed include the production of heavy elements in supernova explosions, the origins of the Milky Way and its interaction with smaller neighbouring galaxies.
Originally, the matter in the universe and its first stars consisted almost exclusively of the light elements hydrogen and helium. All heavier elements such as iron were produced via nuclear fusion in the interior of these stars and released during supernova explosions. The first stars that materialised after the Big Bang were presumably extremely massive and correspondingly short-lived. It is very likely they have all burned themselves out by now. But stars of the subsequent generation with extremely low metallicity tell us a great deal about the conditions that must have existed in the cosmos billions of years ago.
With the help of innovative methods Prof. Beers has identified over 2,000 stars with metal abundances less than one percent of the solar value. In some of them he has discovered absorption lines of thorium and uranium in the spectra, thus making it possible for the first time to determine the age of the stars on the basis of the radioactive degeneration of these elements. The detection of metal-poor stars prompted Prof. Beers to mastermind and conduct one of the most ambitious star-search projects in the history of astronomy.
The Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt foundation is conferred on academics from abroad whose discoveries, insights or new theories have had a significant impact on their discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in future. Award winners are invited to spend a period of up to one year cooperating on a long-term research project with specialist colleagues at a research institution in Germany.
Note for news desks
A digital photo of Prof. Beers is available from the Press Office.
Dr. Guido Thimm
Centre for Astronomy
phone: +49 6221 541805
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