When Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics Michael Kavic talks about his class in Astronomy, his passion is obvious. "All humans have an innate sense of wonder and a desire to ask big questions," Kavic explains. "Viewing stars in the night sky connects us to that part of our humanity. The universe is the place where we live and therefore belongs to us. When we learn about the universe, we are learning about our home." Kavic's Astronomy class is one of the classes that Old Westbury offers to non-science majors who need to complete a lab science class to fill their liberal education requirements. Kavic notes, "Even students who lack strong backgrounds in math or science have been drawn to the class and been engaged. The phases of the moon, the seasons, and the position of the sun in the sky are all related to astronomy and the motion of celestial bodies. These are all phenomena that students encounter in their everyday life.
Kavic, who teaches Structure of Physics in addition to Astronomy, has had a love of science since his childhood. He received a telescope as a gift from his parents and immediately experienced a sense of awe and wonder when he began observing start in the night sky. Kavic also recalls being strongly influenced by the book Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy by Robert Hazen and James Trefil. Other influential books were the bestselling A Brief History of Time by the late Stephen Hawking and Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris. Ferris' book, which guides the reader through the history of astronomy, greatly inspired Kavic. Ferris, who is still highly regarded as an author today, made many accurate predictions about the ways in which technology would shape the field of astronomy.
As a professor at a school that serves a diverse student body, Kavic offers many insights into the challenges faced by science students from underrepresented backgrounds. "All children, regardless of race, gender, or background, are born with an innate curiosity. Our job as educators is to nurture that curiosity and give students a license to pursue it," he observes. Kavic has often worked with students who have received a lot of negative messages about the kind of people that can participate in science. "Some students have been told, 'There are interesting questions about the universe, but those are for other people. Other people do this, but not you.' I have never seen anyone incapable of excelling at science and learning about the universe. It's part of my job to let students know that they are the kind of person who can do this. I'm permitting to study science and ask big questions."
Kavic makes an effort to teach his students about people from diverse backgrounds who have made historic contributions to science. Astronomer Vera Rubin's study of galaxy rotation rates led to the discovery of dark matter. In Kavic's Structure of Physics class, he teaches students about the mathematician Emmy Noether, who was considered a genius by Albert Einstein. Noether got her Ph.D. in Physics at a time when it was formally illegal for her to pursue graduate study in Germany. In Kavic's words, "Science is a human endeavor that we all have a stake in."
In addition to teaching, Kavic has made significant contributions to the field of Astronomy and Astrophysics as a researcher. Kavic recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study neutron starts using an approach termed multi-messenger astronomy. As Kavic explains, multi-messenger astronomy, "Looks at the astronomical objects using multiple telescopes and then puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together. When people think of astronomy, they imagine large telescopes and mirrors. These tools are related to visible light. Visible light astronomy is just one aspect of the field. There is a vast electromagnetic spectrum beyond visible light." Kavic notes that "Students often think of X-rays, microwaves and gamma waves as very different phenomena, but they are all just different varieties of light. Astronomers have developed telescopes that can view every type of light across the electromagnetic spectrum. Every time you look at a different part of the spectrum, you learn something new."
Kavic notes the size and density of a neutron star make it the perfect target for multi-messenger astronomy. Kavic explains, "A star's fuel is made of different elements beginning with hydrogen. A star shines buy fusing light elements into heavier ones and releasing energy in the process. Eventually the lighter elements are used up and the energy source at the star’s center shuts down. Large stars will then undergo a massive explosion called a supernova, the dense core – called a neutron star – remains. Some solar systems have two stars – these are called binary systems. You can have a binary system where both stars become supernovas and leave behind two dense neutron stars. The neutron stars will then orbit around each other. Over time, the orbit will decay and the two neutron stars collide. This results in an explosion that releases a tremendous amount of energy."
The multi-messenger approach to studying a collision of two neutron stars involves collaboration between radio astronomers and scientists who observe gravitational waves. As Kavic explains, "Space isn't empty. There's a layer of dust that slows the radio waves down. We were able to pioneer a technique where the gravitational wave, which is unhindered by the layer of dust, reaches the earth first. We work with the gravitational wave observers to create an alert system. After being alerted, we use our instruments to capture the radio waves which are trailing behind. This allows us to capture what's called a prompt emission – it's a way to see the explosion as it's happening. It's a very exciting project to be working on."
Reflecting on his work, Kavic is extremely grateful for the support he's received at Old Westbury. "I have a large number of students working for me," Kavic notes. "Many students can't imagine themselves researching astronomy. That couldn't be further from the truth. We need young minds and fresh perspectives. The most exciting thing for me is to get students involved and interested."
Written by Jon Kleinman