A typical visible "spiral galaxy."

A typical visible “spiral galaxy.”

Stargazing, astronomy, science, math, dark matter, and ghost galaxies, all on Friday, November the 13th? Sounds almost too spooky for life. Bwog sent junior staffer and budding astrophysicist Phoebe Newton to last evening’s edition of Columbia Astronomy’s monthly “Stargazing and Lecture Series.” Here’s her overview.

Droves of locals and Columbia students gathered last night for the eerily titled talk “The Dark Matter of Ghost Galaxies.” Upon entering the designated lab in Pupin, I quickly scanned the crowd for an open seat, but (surprisingly) couldn’t find one. The crowd seemed to stretch on like the endless galaxies the posters for this event advertised, leaving me to existentially ponder how I am just one small piece in an infinite universe. As the lights dimmed, the hushed chatter of the crowd ceased, and I (finally) edged into one of the few remaining spots close to the door. I was one of the lucky few, as many poor souls were destined to sit on the ground for the entirety of the presentation.

The speaker of the night was Dr. Jana Grcevich, an astrophysicist who has a particular interest in dwarf galaxies. After her introduction, Grcevich moved into the center of the room where she captivated the audience with her wit, intellect, and topically relevant one-liners. I found myself wholly engrossed in the material she presented. I thought, I laughed, and I became genuinely interested in her research. During this informative event, Grcevich asserted that when most people hear the word “galaxy,” they immediately think of spiral galaxies, which are made of gas and dust. For visual reference, she held up a flat CD to demonstrate a spiral galaxy’s shape in space. But what about other types of galaxies that we may not be able to see? Grcevich aimed to explain the answer. Spiral galaxies are actually only the tip of the iceberg in the world of galaxies, for according to Grcevich, 90% of galaxy formations are dark matter. Though we know that there is a large amount of dark matter in the universe, we are still uncertain about what it really is. Spooky.

Current technology, however, allows researchers use computer software to study dark matter over time. With the help of this technology, researchers like Grcevich have concluded that there should be more galaxies than we can currently observe. Grcevich delved into the more specific content of her own research in identifying these “ghost galaxies.” She currently searches for these mysterious galaxies by looking for clouds of hydrogen gas. Many of the galaxies Grcevich is looking for are consistently losing gas; therefore, they are unable to form new stars, making them hard to spot. With the elusive nature of these galaxies, Grcevich and her fellow researchers scan various pictures for small formations that may be the target of their search. In Grcevich’s words, “I study blobs.” With the help of various telescopes and machines, Grcevich has discovered two dwarf galaxies that she affectionately named after her favorite sci-fi characters (their official names are Pisces A and Pisces B).
While it seems there is still much to discover about these formations, Grcevich was happy to engage with the crowd to answer questions and talk about the theories behind her work. I left the lecture with a good dose of Friday-the-13th mystery, and my interest in astrophysics piqued. In the words of James Thurber, “walk don’t run” to the Astronomy department’s next event.

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