International boost will help UCT researchers shine light on dark energy

1 December 2016

The UTFORSK Partnership Programme – run by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education (see textbox) – has awarded R3.2 million (about NOK1.9 million) to a joint cosmology and astrophysics research and teaching project between UCT and the University of Oslo.

The first MeerKAT dish antenna, installed on site in the Karoo in March 2014
The first MeerKAT dish antenna, installed on site in the Karoo in March 2014. MeerKat and the future SKA will have a profound impact on our understanding of the universe by providing ways of constraining the various competing theories of dark energy models and modified gravity.

“This collaboration will help grow the South African astronomy community to world-class strength,” says Professor Peter Dunsby from the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, who will run the programme at UCT together with Dr Álvaro de la Cruz-Dombriz also from the same UCT department. Professor David Mota from the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in the University of Oslo will run the programme in Norway.

The research will focus on what is – according to some researchers – the most important problem in contemporary cosmology: understanding the nature of dark energy. In the standard model of cosmology (the Concordance Model), dark energy makes up 68% of the universe. While researchers know very little about what it is, the consensus is that it is responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe, which makes it an important area of investigation (see textbox). 

"Any way you look at it there is new physics to be uncovered here and it is this which makes this field extremely exciting!" says Dunsby.

Both research groups from UCT and the University of Oslo are widely acknowledged as leaders in this area. So formalising our collaboration was a natural next step, says Dunsby. 

“This collaboration will enable participating researchers to tackle open questions in modern cosmology, where the combined expertise of both groups will enable us to make substantial progress in this field.”

 Dr Álvaro de la Cruz-Dombriz (UCT), Professor David Mota (University of Oslo) and Professor Peter Dunsby (UCT). 
Researchers running the partnership programme (R-L): Dr Álvaro de la Cruz-Dombriz (UCT), Professor David Mota (University of Oslo) and Professor Peter Dunsby (UCT). 

The collaborators also plan to co-develop new courses in theoretical cosmology and computational astrophysics at the Master’s and PhD level at both institutions. They hope to develop educational tools (such as numerical programming and statistical analysis of data), and a strong analytical methodology, to allow students in both institutions to work together on research projects.

The programme will provide graduate students with a well-rounded international perspective by making them aware of how gravitational science is performed in countries and continents apart from their own. Participating students from both institutions will have the opportunity to visit each other’s host university. In addition, the project will involve co-mentoring postdoctoral researchers. 

“We believe that this collaboration will lead to the production of world class science,” says Dunsby. “And also boost the production of quality doctoral graduates who can compete on the international stage.”

Dark energy in a nutshell
In 1998, the Cosmology community was rocked to its core. Two international groups of astrophysicists collected data on the light output from distant stellar explosions called type Ia supernovae in order to measure how the universe has expanded over its 13.7-billion-year lifetime. Based on the cosmological model at the time, the Einstein-de Sitter model, they expected that the expansion would be slowing down as galaxies pulled toward each other as a result of their gravitational attraction. What they found was quite remarkable, and such a surprise that initially both teams did not believe their results. The interpretation of these observations was startling. Firstly, the Einstein-de Sitter model was completely ruled out and secondly, an almost preposterous conclusion resulted: the universe has an accelerated expansion today. There are not many ways to accelerate the universe. One possibility is to invoke a new field - known as dark energy.  Another option would be to discard the theory of general relativity on the cosmological scale. Either way, the consequences for our understanding of physics are profound.


About the UTFORSK Partnership Programme
The UTFORSK Partnership Programme supports project cooperation between higher education institutions in Norway and higher education institutions in Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Africa. Overall, the programme aims to enhance long-term cooperation in higher education with the prioritised countries. It also aims to enhance the quality of international cooperation in education by encouraging links to research cooperation and work life. It is funded by the Ministry of Education and Research and administered by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education (SIU).


Story by Jess Oosthuizen. Main image courtesy of SKA.