[Research] Stars Align

Chris Hirata (left) and Annika Peter (right) join the CCAPP team.

Chris Hirata (left) and Annika Peter (right) join the CCAPP team.

In the unassuming offices of the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP), leading-edge work is being done by some of the country’s best young minds in astrophysics—work that may provide answers to our most profound questions about the origin, age, and fate of the universe.  

John Beacom, director, CCAPP

John Beacom (pictured left), professor of physics and astronomy, directs a unique partnership between two departments that are leaders in their fields: physics and astronomy. Their intersection is a key ingredient in CCAPP’s visible success, in the scope of work it enables, and its ability to attract the nation’s top astrophysicists.

Beacom came to Ohio State nine years ago, because “I saw that it was an institution that was growing, and I was interested in where it was going, not where it was. I knew this was a place where I could build something significant, in partnership with colleagues, that we could keep making stronger.”

Today, Beacom leads CCAPP, continuing to build on an interactive enterprise that is dedicated to important discoveries by growing collaborations and connecting theory with experiment.

Beacom leads by listening and mentoring. “My fundamental goals are to build networks, not pyramids, and produce people, not papers. If you focus on this, everything else takes care of itself.”

CCAPP is a training ground that fosters independent research by the nation’s most promising young postdoctoral fellows. 

Together, CCAPP faculty and postdoctoral researchers are unlocking the secrets of the universe’s key forces—dark matter that holds galaxies together, and dark energy that accelerates them apart—along with a few other matters like violent explosions of massive stars and the high-energy cosmic rays they create. 

Unlimited collaborative possibilities attract young faculty researchers like magnets—the latest, a powerhouse couple from Caltech—Christopher Hirata, professor of physics and astronomy; and Annika Peter, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, arrived in August.

“Recruiting Annika and Chris was an amazing coup and I continue to hear compliments and kudos about it from astronomers I know around the world,” said David Weinberg, astronomy professor and Distinguished Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.  

“I’ve been working with Chris a lot over the last three years, partly on the design of the next big NASA space telescope. What’s amazing is the way he’s mastered everything from the abstruse mathematical details of the underlying theories to the detailed arcana of spacecraft mechanics. Scientists with that kind of range are extremely rare, and they have an enormous impact.

“CCAPP has built an extremely strong research program exploiting the synergies at the interface between astronomy and fundamental physics. Annika and Chris embody this idea, reflected in their style of work and in their research on dark matter and dark energy, and I’m sure CCAPP was pivotal in their decision to come to Ohio State.”  

Hirata, full professor at Caltech at 29, winner of multiple major awards and honors, newly appointed Simons Foundation Investigator, is already a star in his field. The same quality that attracted Beacom drew Hirata. “Astrophysics here as an enterprise is still being built; it is clearly on the rise and the collaborative way research seems to be done here appealed to me,” Hirata said.

Hirata studies problems inherent in what is known thus far about dark energy. He hopes to tie dark energy to fundamental theories of the universe, using a theoretical framework plus observations, focusing on those found in the microwave background of the universe. 

Hirata takes advantage of large-scale sky surveys and other tools used by astronomers to help untangle this phenomenon that he says, “is so bizarre it contradicts all intuition and doesn’t fit into any mathematical framework that describes the universe.” 

For Annika Peter, CCAPP’s “fantastic faculty and graduate students in both physics and astronomy and top-notch postdoctoral fellows” were irresistible. 

"I like that the physics and astronomy departments are so closely connected—my research straddles the line of physics and astronomy, so a lot of places do not know how to classify me, but here, my research interests fall squarely in the research mission of CCAPP. It’s nice to fit in!" {Annika Peter}

Peter researches dark matter, which makes up about 26 percent of the universe. “Even though we know it’s there, we don’t know what it is. My goal is to figure out how experiments or astronomical observations can be used to tease out specific properties of dark matter. I’m also interested in how galaxies work, particularly our home galaxy, the Milky Way.”