UA professor on intl. team studying dark energy

Carolyn Bero

A faculty member at the University has partnered with researchers in Finland and Russia to study a recently discovered phenomenon called dark energy.

Gene Byrd, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, has teamed up with astronomers at Finland’s Turla Observatory and the Sternberg Astronomical Institution in Russia to study the effects of dark energy in local galaxies.

Byrd originally hails from a small town in Texas, and part of his inspiration for this line of work comes from his background when he was younger.

“I was in school, in junior high, during the 1950s… I was already interested in space. I lived on a small farm in Texas with clear, dark skies… No one in my family had gone to college… [Then] Russia launches Sputnik. This was a great shock. Suddenly, everyone realized that, first, Russians were technologically advanced, and, second, satellites could easily contain a warhead. This new interest in science helped me get a scholarship to college,” Byrd said.

Byrd earned his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University and received his doctorate degree in astronomy from the University of Texas. He came to the University for a post-doctoral study about the spiral structure of galaxies. Decades later, he is still at the University.

Dark energy, a “mysterious new force in nature” as Byrd describes it, was discovered when astronomers began studying distant galaxies to try to determine how the galaxies were moving. They were shocked to find a force that was repelling objects, including galaxies, away from each other.

Byrd and the group are focusing on the local galaxies, which are the galaxies that are close to the Milky Way, in order to try and discover if this force works on smaller scales.

Dark energy offers a contrast to gravity, as gravity is attractive and dark energy is repulsive.

In addition, dark energy also appears to increase in strength with increasing distance and was recently featured in a European astronomy journal.

“It really is a nice counterpoint because the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating for no apparent reason is, in some people’s eyes, the big discovery of cosmology in the last 20 years. Now [Byrd’s] trying to discover what drives it,” said Bill Keel, a professor of astronomy at UA.