Michael Lam stands at a podium with the Nebraska
Michael Lam speaks to a crowd about future possibilities in astronomy at Swanson Hall on Oct. 21. Photo by Hanna Christensen/NNS

Science is always changing. Michael Lam, a researcher and assistant professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, gave this year’s Ruckman Public Lecture and discussed new findings in space science.

The lecture, entitled “Celestial Clocks and Ripples in Spacetime,” was held on Oct. 21 at the Nebraska Union Auditorium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was also available via Zoom.

Kevin Lee, a research associate professor of physics and astronomy at UNL, is the main organizer of the event. He said he developed the program about 20 years ago. It was originally an astronomy education workshop, but it has grown to be just as much about physics as astronomy over the years.

Lee said the main goal of the event; alongside a summit on Oct. 22 that featured an exhibition hall, breakout sessions and presentations; was to bring educators together. This way, they can share information with one another and be exposed to new science, new technologies and new curriculum for teaching science. The main theme this year was using instructional technology to improve the way educators teach physics and astronomy.

“I’m interested to hear what other people have been thinking of,” Lam said. “It’s fun to say what I’m working on and all that, but I also like learning.”

Lam said he met Lee at the American Association for Physics Teachers meeting. After seeing Lam give a speech, Lee approached him and asked him to come to the summit. Lam agreed– it gave him the chance to educate others about a topic he loves: astronomy.

“I always wanted to be an astronomer at the youngest age,” Lam said. “I grew up in New York City where you can’t see anything in the sky, and then I remember going outside of New York City and, it’s very cliche, but I looked up at the sky and thought, ‘Oh my gosh– this is amazing. I want to be an astronomer.’”

In his speech, Lam talked about an up-and-coming method of detecting gravitational waves, which are ripples in space traveling at the speed of light, that he is involved with developing. The waves are the product of massive objects with extreme accelerations.

In 2015, an organization called LIGO was able to detect gravitational waves using interferometers, which function like antennae. However, the LIGO-Virgo observatories cannot detect gravitational waves of very low frequencies, such as the waves that would come as a result of the merging of two supermassive black holes.

So, Lam and his team are looking at a new way to detect gravitational waves with much lower frequencies. They are using pulsars, which are neutron stars that have pulses of radiation at regular intervals, that Lam described as precision celestial clocks in space. By looking at a pulsar timing array, scientists can track minuscule deviations in the arrival times of the pulses. 

Although Lam and his co-collaborators have not yet been able to detect gravitational waves using pulsars, he said they are getting closer and are optimistic as more research data continues to come through. 

To observe the pulsars, the group uses a galaxy-wide observatory with pulsars and the largest radio telescopes on earth. The telescopes, and the people involved in the project, are spread out across North America. 

Work like this not only helps people to better understand the topic on a small scale but also helps provide a greater knowledge of how the universe works. 

“What we’re trying to do is build a detector not just to detect gravitational waves but to learn about how galaxies grow and evolve over the course of the history of the universe,” Lam said. 

Physics and astronomy are complicated fields with lots of moving parts, but Lam said he enjoys discovering how to break down the information in ways that can be accessible to students, whether they are graduate, undergraduate, high school or middle school students.  

“We really try to make it as approachable and accessible to, let’s say, high school students, so they can get involved and actually do meaningful research and collaboration,” he said. 

Nathaniel Cunningham, a physics professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University, attended The Ruckman lecture and brought his son and a friend along with him.

“I like going to lectures in general, but to have someone who’s speaking to a wider, science-literate but non-specialist audience is great,” he said. “It’s great to see the public getting connected with science.”