September 26, 2016

Understanding the Big Bang!

The NOK 100 000 Birkeland Prize was awarded to Therese Renstrøm for her PhD in nuclear physics at the Norwegian Academy of Science in Oslo last Thursday.
Therese Renstrøm receives award from Pierre Herben
Therese Renstrøm receives award from Pierre Herben

“The prize is a great recognition of my PhD work and is a big motivator for me to continue my research,” says Therese Renstrøm. Pierre Herben, Yara’s Chief technology Officer handed out the award on behalf of Yara International.

First awarded in 2009, Yara’s Birkeland Prize goes to a PhD student who best reflects Birkeland’s enthusiasm for scientific research, alternating yearly between physics and chemistry.

A core element in the research project carried out by Renstrøm – with the title, Probing statistical properties of Ni, Ge, Nd and Sm isotopes – is to understand how the elements are created in the universe.

The rough lines are already known, hydrogen and helium were created towards the end of the Big Bang, while other elements are created through fusion processes in stars.

But this does not explain how heavier elements than iron and nickel are shaped. Although there is still a lot we do not know about the formation of these heavy elements, we do know that neutron capture – that is, a core incorporates a neutron to subsequently being recreated to a heavier core – is the key mechanism.

Supernovas and colliding neutron stars

The neutron capture happens through two different processes, one slow and one quick. Ms. Renstrøm’s research has contributed to new knowledge about both processes.

The fast process is the one we know least about, but it is known that it requires a high density of neutrons, which we find in supernovas and when neutron stars collide.

Exactly how this process is carried out, is still not certain. One main challenge is to find quality data about the short lived isotopes that are part of the process.

Therese Renstrøm’s research includes the measuring of entities that are used to calculate the likeliness for neutron capture, which is essential in understanding the creation of elements.

Clear parallel to Birkeland

There are obvious parallels between the research done by Renstrøm and what Kristian Birkeland achieved over a 100 years ago, according to the judging panel.

The panel noted that both were drawn towards a fascination for cosmic phenomena that could not be studied in a lab.

While Birkeland used Maxwell’s electromagnetism, at that time a relatively new method, combined with laboratory experiments with plasma to explain aurora borealis, Renstrøm made use of measurements of the atom core to shed light on the creation of these cores in remote parts of the universe.

“Birkeland was a great physician who possessed everything, theoretical strength, amazing experimental fantasy, great ability to realize his work and a fantastic work capacity,” says Renstrøm.