Science, according to Prof. Barry McKernan, is basically a social activity.
“The most important work takes place when smart people come together to argue, exchange ideas, and present alternative viewpoints,” he says.
Colleague Saavik Ford puts it even more plainly: “Science is about getting a lot of us in the same room and banging our heads together until something good comes out.”
Ford and McKernan, who are professors in BMCC’s Science Department as well as veteran astrophysicists, will have an opportunity to indulge in some creative head-banging this summer.
Recently named 2013-2015 Kavli Scholars, they will spend two weeks at University of California-Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, sharing their views and observations with colleagues from around the world and taking part in meetings and symposia.
A community college first
Established in 2000 by the California-based Kavli Foundation, the Kavli Scholars program supports college faculty involved in theoretical physics research. Some 100 Kavli Scholars have been selected to date. McKernan and Ford are the first from a community college.
The mission of the Kavli Foundation is to foster scientific research through research, professorships, and other programs in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics at 16 Kavli Institutes throughout the world.
“Evidently, the Kavli Institute was impressed by our work and wanted to encourage us,” says McKernan. “We feel very encouraged.”
Over the past several years, he and Ford probed the mysteries of supermassive black holes—vast areas in deep space that exert enough gravitational pull to keep even light from escaping. “Much of our work has focused on the physics of supermassive black holes—how they form, grow, behave and sometimes merge together.”
Conventional black holes, they’ve observed, typically fall into disc-shaped orbits around supermassive bodies—a breakthrough discovery that has led to new ways of thinking about black holes and their place in the universe.
In addition, the two have helped design instrumentation for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2018 with the goal of studying the birth and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets.
Reaching out to talented minority students
The priority Ford and McKernan place on the free exchange of ideas is reflected in their involvement in Astrocom NYC.
Drawing on the collective skills and knowledge of astronomers and astrophysicists from throughout CUNY, as well as Columbia University and the American Museum of National History, Astrocom NYC is aimed at creating learning and networking opportunities for CUNY students interested in careers in astronomy and physics.
“Minorities are significantly under-represented in the sciences, and the field of astrophysics is no exception,” says Ford.
Students selected for Astrocom NYC, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, attend summer courses at the American Museum of Natural History and mentored research programs on site at participating institutions. The program will continue in the fall with coursework and colloquia at Columbia.
“Scientists do their best work as a part of a community,” says Ford. “The idea behind Astrocom NYC is to create that same kind of community for talented minority students.”