Getting down to business in the next two semesters could send a University of Texas at Arlington student to Germany.
UTA physicist Zdzislaw Musielak will choose a Ph.D. candidate from somewhere to share part of the prestigious Humboldt Research Award he won in June. It’s the third time he has been honored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation: He also received the research prize, which recognizes internationally renowned scientists and scholars, in 1997 and 2010.
Musielak’s efforts to discover planetary systems and explore dark matter, dark energy and black holes earned him the latest award, which pays his expenses to spend up to three months abroad working with peers. The Humboldt, established in 1953, is a repeatable award; continuations may be granted multiple times to a recipient, but each granting is more difficult to earn than the last. Musielak recently returned from a month in Germany paid for by his third continuation.
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He will go again in June, accompanied by a deserving student.
“The Humboldt is second only to the Nobel as the richest prize,” Musielak said. “It’s a huge lump of money to spend on research with the German institution of my choice. I could be picking one of my students this year to go with me next summer. Or I could pick a student in Germany.”
A Kiepenheuer Institute student put herself on the short list while working with Musielak this summer. That means the Ph.D. students in UTA’s physics department had best bring their A games.
As much as it means for Musielak and the student, the award also means a lot for UTA.
“This is without question one of the most prestigious awards for physics researchers in the world,” said Ron Elsenbaumer, UT Arlington provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Dr. Musielak has done a truly amazing job over many years to change how physics is taught and how the mysteries of the universe are understood. Along the way, he has helped to enhance UT Arlington’s reputation as a leading research institution.”
Being honored three times by the Humboldt Foundation is a fairly uncommon distinction, said the Polish-born Musielak, whose first name is pronounced GEEZ’-wahv.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one in the Metroplex to get it,” Musielak said. “People in Austin, at A&M and Rice got it. But this means that UTA is recognized as a research institution.”
In other words, UTA exposes its students to “the cutting-edge of their subjects, what people are working on and what they are achieving now,” Musielak said. “Assignments are things which are not yet in books.”
Some of Musielak’s current research has students looking far away from Earth.
“We are searching for exomoons,” he said, “moons outside our solar system.”
Looking even farther for the origins of a couple of cosmic facets continues to intrigue the professor. Dark matter and dark energy are mysteries that Musielak and scientists around the world are determined to solve.
“We know they exist, because they are the only ways to explain what we see through astronomical observations,” he said.
Dark energy’s influence can be seen in the movement of galaxies.
“Dark energy pushes space to expand,” he said. “It adds tension to space and makes it unfold faster.”
Dark matter, on the other hand, “is a different animal,” Musielak said. “It’s something which surrounds galaxies and changes the dynamics of stars.”
The subatomic particle called the Higgs boson is not dark matter, Musielak said. But scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, who discovered the Higgs boson are using its supercollider to look for dark matter particles as well.
“We do not know what dark matter is,” Musielak said. “But we say that there must be a halo of dark matter which gives enough gravitational force to give all the stars the same angular speed.”
That’s what scientists do, Musielak said.
“We develop theories, measure things and discover whether our theories are correct,” he said.
When theories become widely accepted by the scientific community, the world often is changed. Examples include gravity and evolution.
“Maybe 500 to 1,000 years from now people will be using dark matter and dark energy the way we use parts of the electromagnetic wave energy spectrum with things like X-rays and microwaves,” Musielak said.