From Sept. 9—13, the Faculty of Science hosted Soup and Science, a semesterly event where professors briefly present their research and talk with students at Redpath Museum.
The expanding universe
Jonathan Sievers, a professor in the Department of Physics and researcher at the McGill Space Institute, shared his research on galaxy expansion. Sievers started by throwing a basketball in the air and letting it fall back into his hand.
“If, on its way up, this ball accelerated, slowed down, reaccelerated, and finally fell down, you would be shocked, wouldn’t you?” Sievers asked. “Well, it seems that our universe is expanding in this manner.”
Sievers explained that the rate at which the universe grows is not constant at all. This strange phenomenon is associated with dark energy, a form of energy thought to drive the expansion of the universe.
The evidence for this phenomenon comes from the observation that distant galaxies appear more red than expected . This distortion in colour indicates that the wavelength of light travelling from a distant galaxy is longer than its value when emitted. This shows the expansion of the universe, since it suggests that the source of light is moving away from the observer.
To escape human-created radio interference and properly observe this expansion, Sievers has expanded his research to remote Marion Island, which lies between South Africa and Antarctica.
Jordan Axt, a professor in the Department of Psychology, presented his work on inter-group biases. In his research, he observes whether research participants are more likely to select physically attractive individuals for a fake honour society over “uglier” people holding the same credentials.
Axt found that attractive applicants were indeed more likely to be accepted than less attractive ones when the two were equally qualified. The same was true when the two groups were equally unqualified. This bias occurred because the participants, who implicitly relied upon the candidate’s image to reach a decision, had lower standards for the attractive group.
The results of this study exemplify how biases can easily become ingrained, and how one’s perceived attractiveness—which they have little control over—can significantly influence their opportunities.
Axt has previously demonstrated that other biases, such as in-group favouritism and political affiliation, influence judgement. In the future, he hopes to study whether the perception of one’s own attractiveness influences their tendency to evaluate others based on attractiveness.
How planets form
Eve Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, gave an overview of her research on planet formation.
She explained that, generally, planets begin forming when electrostatic forces, which are created by interacting positive and negative charges, stick tiny dust particles together. Gravitational attraction and collisions allow for the formation of rocky planets the size of Earth. To reach the size of gas giants like Jupiter, a rocky planet must also build a very thick atmosphere.
However, outside of the solar system, researchers have observed a variety of unexpected phenomena. For example, they have found that some planets much larger than Earth orbit their central stars at a significantly closer distance, while others reduce their size by shrinking their atmosphere.
Lee’s team uses knowledge of thermodynamics to do analytical calculations and create computer simulations of planet formation.
“What my research group is really looking at is how common our solar system is and just how lucky are we to live on a planet that has just the right conditions to harbour life,” Lee said.