Guest post by Alex Jackson
“Very often the famous names we know and read about in science are not those of women,” says Professor Jo Dunkley. “To get more young girls studying the subject, we must change cultural perceptions and have more visible female role models.”
As we sit discussing the women who have inspired Dunkley, a professor of physics and astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, to study the universe, the mood is rather sombre. On a morning when the first female frontrunner for US presidency has missed out at the final hurdle, and the impacts of that decision on science, are yet unknown, there is a strong sense of disbelief.
“I was really hoping to see the first female president and that in itself is a disappointment,” she says. “I don’t see it as a positive turn of events in terms of funding for science, although I hope there’ll be enough influence to keep ongoing projects running.”
Dunkley admits to being shocked at the result. Having moved from the UK, just shortly after Brexit, she was already starting to see the effects of political uncertainty on European grants. “Uncertainty is not we need right now in science,” she says.
However, the astrophysicist has plenty occupying her mind other than politics. This week, she will receive the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award and present a public lecture in London. Named after the great English chemist and crystallographer, the award recognises both her research in the cosmic microwave background, and her work encouraging more young women to study physics.
“I see a really important part of my work is not just doing the research I love, but also encouraging others to pursue a career in science,” she says. Dunkley became aware of Franklin’s story when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Sadly, Franklin died at just 37 years old, the age Dunkley has recently turned. “She’s such a wonderful role model, who achieved so much in a very short life.”
Our window on the universe
Dunkley’s own research has gained her much attention. As a research fellow at Princeton, she worked on NASA’s WMAP satellite, before analysing data on the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. Interrogating rich and complex data, her research group made large strides in furthering our understanding of the universe’s origins.
Studying the evolution of the universe is, however, becoming easier as technology rapidly develops. “Our telescopes have become so sophisticated in recent decades, we are now able to see out into the far reaches of the universe,” Dunkley says. “We’ve been able to put together a fairly successful cosmological model that explains how we got here over the 14 billion year history of the universe.”
A large focus of Dunkley’s work involves turning recorded maps of the most distant light we can see—an image of the universe when it was born—into properties such as age, weight, and the rate of expansion.
“We measure the faint light by capturing a little snapshot of what the universe looked like when it was only 400,000 years old,” she explains. Her team then compare the experimental data to millions of theoretical universes, until they find one which matches. “We can now see the very beginnings of tiny cosmic structures that over billions of years develop to become the first stars and galaxies. It’s then our job to find out what these structures look like, and how they evolved,” she says.
After analysing more than 15 months’ data from Planck, Dunkley and her colleagues created the most detailed map ever made of the oldest light to shine through the universe. The results confirmed many of the theories cosmologists draw on to explain the evolution of the universe. “We think during the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang, the universe expanded extremely fast, laying down the seeds for the cosmic structure we see today,” she says.
By Dunkley’s own admission, there are still many unanswered questions. Her current research at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in Chile, and a new five-year project at the same site in the Atacama Desert called the Simons Observatory, hope to make the next big steps forward in measuring cosmic microwave background.
“We keep looking for new physics, complexities and extra particles that could have existed when the universe was very young,” notes Dunkley. “Yet, the more data we collect, the simpler the universe’s behaviour looks, which is exciting, but we still have all these unanswered questions.”
After the breakthrough LIGO discovery earlier this year, which detected gravitational waves, Dunkley believes there’s much optimism in now finding a signal from the big bang. She also hopes through another development, gravitational lensing, scientists will soon be able to understand and map out where all the dark matter is in our universe.
Her optimism and love for physics is affable and evident in her responses. Yet, there is one area she believes cultural changes are needed: role models. This is a theme she will address in her lecture and one that will feature in her first popular science book out late next year, Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide.
“There really aren’t enough women role models in physics, and many of the great female astronomers are not often that well known, or talked about in education,” says Dunkley. “I think it is so important. The ability to see someone you can imagine being, is everything, and gives you the confidence to try things out and aim for something. And often that will mean having someone, as a woman, showing a woman can do it.”
As she enthuses through the great achievements of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, “an incredible woman” who made it possible for Edward Hubble to determine that the universe is expanding; Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who figured out how stars were formed; and Vera Rubin whose work led to the theory of dark matter, it’s easy to forget Dunkley has become a star in her own right.
Dunkley may feature on shows such as BBC’s Science Club and Stargazing Live, yet she believes the industry must do better. “The media must do more to get visible female role models on television to change perceptions,” she says. “I’d love to get to the stage where young people knew it was normal to be a female scientist, and expect to be able to have a family too, whether it be in physics or engineering.”
Time for change
On academia, Dunkley is keen to express some sanguinity. “We’re definitely seeing more women now at senior level, which makes a huge difference, and has a direct influence on female students,” she says.
At Princeton, she notes there are growing numbers in female students pursuing astrophysics. It was a similar trend at Oxford University, where until this summer, Dunkley taught for more than eight years. However, it is the drop-out rate at colleges that worries her.
“In the UK, for example, only 20 percent of physics students aged 16-18 are girls, and this figure continues through to degree, PhD, and researcher level,” she explains. It is a target she’d like to see change. “Consciously or unconsciously, there is often still a common assumption that science, particularly physics, is more for boys than girls. To effect change, we need to influence both teachers and parents.”
Through her book release, she is a planning a series of workshops, talks and videos for students, as well as a public lecture tour of the UK. She hopes to raise awareness of women’s contribution to astronomy, as well as break down the idea that the universe is too difficult to understand.
“I want to promote the many remarkable women who have been central to our biggest discoveries in space,” she says. “We have an incredible group of women currently working in the field, but to answer our world’s most pressing questions and challenges, we need more.”
Professor Jo Dunkley’s Rosalind Franklin award lecture will be streamed live on Thursday, 6.30pm GMT / 1.30pm EST.