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Studying the ‘bigger picture’

Moorestown grad Kyle Dawson on components of the universe

Special to The Sun
Moorestown High School alumnus Kyle Dawson is the co-spokesperson for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), the largest spectroscopic survey ever conducted, designed to map the cosmic distance scale and growth of structure over the last 12 billion years.

Kyle Dawson was always most interested in math and the sciences when he was a student at Moorestown High School.

“I don’t think I really knew what physics was until towards the end of high school,” he recalled. “I think my interest was probably more on the math side, and I learned in college, in my freshman year, that physics was the perfect marriage of science and math.”

Dawson graduated in 1994 and got his bachelor’s in physics from Cornell University and his doctorate in physics and astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. He did his post-doctoral work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBL).

Not long after leaving LBL for the University of Utah, Dawson became one of the principal researchers for eBOSS (Extended Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey), to constrain cosmology through the clustering of matter on scales of hundreds of millions of light years.

When combined with previous phases of SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey), eBOSS precisely measures the expansion history of the universe throughout 80% of cosmic history, back to when the universe was less than three billion years old, according to www.sdss4.org/surveys/eboss/.

The measurements improve constraints on the nature of “dark energy,” the observed phenomenon that the expansion of the universe is currently accelerating. Dark energy remains one of the most mysterious experimental results in modern physics.

Dawson would become eBOSS’ principal investigator a few years later, working closely with project manager LBL. The final measurements – a series of complementary studies and the cosmological interpretation – were made public on July 20, 2020. A summary can be found at https://press.sdss.org/no-need-to-mind-the-gap.

The program would quickly grow to more than 900 scientists around the world, including a number of Nobel laureates, and receive universal credibility within the scientific community.

“It was a great experience,” Dawson said of eBOSS. “I was very, very happy to see the impact of the project. We had a decade of contribution to the field, and we could understand how our project compared to everything else in the field, what we did …

“It was a great experience,” he added. “You could really see the legacy. You could look back over 10 years and see the legacy of your experiment.”

Dawson is now the co-spokesperson for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) and is continuing a leadership role for that investigation. DESI will measure the effect of dark energy on the expansion of the universe, according to www.desi.lbl.gov. It will obtain optical spectra for tens of millions of galaxies and quasars, constructing a 3D map spanning the nearby universe to 11 billion light years.

DESI has become the largest spectroscopic survey ever, designed to map the cosmic distance scale and growth of structure over the last 12 billion years. It is being conducted on the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. DESI has created the largest 3D map of the universe, and its expansion history is known to be better than 1% precision, yielding the best picture yet of how the universe has evolved over the past 11 billion years.

“I think the big question that we’re trying to study is, using astronomy and using observations of the sky, what are the basic psychics that govern the universe?” Dawson asked. “That’s the big question that we’re trying to answer … We live on Earth and we’re very familiar with things like carbon and oxygen and the other elements of the periodic table. That’s all what we would call normal matter, but in terms of the overall universe, that’s actually a very small fraction of what the universe is made out of.

“The universe is only about 5% of the energy,” he added, “and the universe comes from things that we’re familiar with, this normal matter. And our job in cosmology is to try to figure out what is the psychics, what explains the other 95%, and what else can we learn about the laws of physics in space?

” … That’s our goal, what is the big picture, what are the fundamental laws of nature and what’s the fundamental components of the universe?”

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