Astronomy at Durham 2020-2023

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Physics

Abstract

Astronomy can capture the public imagination to a greater extent than almost any other branch of science. It is accessible to anyone who gazes up into the night sky to look at the Moon, the planets, stars, and nearby galaxies. Our understanding of the universe has developed rapidly over the past several decades. On the basis of the standard cosmological model we live in a universe where at least two thirds of the mass energy is in the form of dark energy which causes the Universe to expand at an ever increasing rate. About a quarter of the mass energy is in the form of dark matter, most probably a new weakly interacting elementary particle yet to be detected on Earth (and hence of great interest to particle physicists). The remaining five percent of the mass energy is in the form of ordinary, or baryonic, matter of which only about a tenth is in stars and planets such as the Earth, and the rest resides mostly as gas in between galaxies.

Our programme combines cutting-edge theoretical and observational research with innovative instrumentation development to understand the universe in which we inhabit. We blend theoretical research on the earliest phases of the Universe with theoretical and observational projects to determine the formation and evolution of black holes, galaxies, and the larger-scale structures in which they reside. We confront the predictions from our models with our latest observational results, while actively exploiting innovative instrumentation developments pursued in Durham. We will explore astrophysical clues to the identity of the dark matter and the nature of the dark energy, focus on the evolution of galaxies back to the earliest times in the Universe and the influence on which the larger-scale environment has had on their properties. We will investigate the formation and evolution of black holes and their role in determining the structure and properties of galaxies and their larger scale structures, using the latest instruments on ground-based observatories and Earth-orbiting satellites.

Planned Impact

We have a strong track record of public engagement. What started out as a Physics-centric outreach initiative over a decade ago has become a University wide activity. It has led to the creation of the highly successful Celebrate Science festival in Durham, which attracts ~7,000 people each year. This year we are aiming to quantify the impact of our outreach by sending out carefully designed questionnaires to the local schools attending the Durham University Schools' Science Festival, which attracts over 850 pupils annually. This will allow us to develop our outreach activities into an impact case study for the upcoming REF exercise, combining the six Royal Society Summer Science exhibitions that we have been involved in between 2002-2016. We aim to submit a new proposal for Summer Science 2020 or 2021 to refresh our outreach materials. Building on the Cosmic Architecture and Cosmoscope installations we built for Durham's Lumiere festival in 2017, we plan to include one or more of these in the "greatest hits" version of Lumiere in 2019, the tenth anniversary of the first event, after which we will develop new exhibits for Lumiere 2021.

Our Knowledge Exchange (KE) programme builds upon the strong industry links within all three of the astronomy groups at Durham, and has been expanded in recent years with the establishment of the Durham Data Intensive Science CDT. We will continue to exploit the opportunities afforded by the CDT for placements and team projects with local SMEs and wider UK industries. We will also use these opportunities to build the visibility of our wider research knowledge and skills to industry.

We are expanding our capabilities in precision diamond machining via infrastructure investments from the University and elsewhere, and will seek to develop their economic impact via applications into the STFC FOF and IPS programmes. Our expertise in adaptive optics is recognised worldwide and we will continue develop its international impact with joint programmes in China, Turkey & Thailand. Our work on novel detectors (MKIDs) will naturally support wider European initiatives such as the ATTRACT project.

Finally, our broader research programme underpins the research and development of a cohort of postgraduate students at Durham, providing them with training in specific and transferable skills which is being accelerated by our CDTs. Former students have taken jobs in a range of industries from computer gaming to finance and genetics. Physics students at Durham benefit through their participation in our research work via their 4th year MPhys projects. Our technical training of these post/undergraduate students provides a pool of talented, skilled candidates to the UK economy which will continue throughout the period of our Consolidated Grant proposal. We will continue to add industrial partners to the CDT in Data Intensive Science to offer new placement opportunities for PhD students and for students on our new MSc course in Scientific Computing and Data Analysis.

Publications

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