11/01/2012 Chris Karlesky ’01

His Discovery Was Written in the Stars

  • Jack Madden ’14 (right) discovered a rare extragalactic pulsar this summer during his Hackman research project with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford (left). Between them is a Beowulf cluster, a series of high-powered computers in F&M's Hackman Physical Sciences Building that processed the data for Madden’s project. Jack Madden ’14 (right) discovered a rare extragalactic pulsar this summer during his Hackman research project with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford (left). Between them is a Beowulf cluster, a series of high-powered computers in F&M's Hackman Physical Sciences Building that processed the data for Madden’s project.


While his fellow Hackman scholars were creating new knowledge and making new discoveries this summer on the Franklin & Marshall campus, Jack Madden ’14 went a little further afield with his research—about 160,000 light years further afield.

Hackman scholars, of which there are approximately 70 per summer, participate in faculty-mentored projects, and Madden spent his June, July and August working with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford searching for pulsars—rapidly rotating neutron stars the size of New York City.  The task proved especially challenging because Madden was on the hunt for the scarcest of finds: extragalactic pulsars outside the Milky Way galaxy. Just 1 percent of the 2,000 pulsars known to astronomers are extragalactic.

One afternoon in May, in the quiet astronomy research laboratory in F&M’s Hackman Physical Sciences Building, Madden noticed something as he combed through data on his computer. He saw the classic dark line indicative of a pulsar, produced by radio waves on a graph.

“It wasn’t actually very exciting at first because the signal was so strong that I figured this was a redetection of something already discovered,” Madden said. Crawford soon confirmed with colleagues at West Virginia University that Madden had struck gold by finding a pulsar in a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Madden is the first F&M student to discover a pulsar, “and it happens to be an extragalactic pulsar,” Crawford said.

“The Eureka moment is delayed when you search for pulsars. You have to be suspicious that you haven’t found something already in the database,” Crawford said. “This is the second-most rapidly rotating radio pulsar outside our galaxy, and it might be a young pulsar. Jack’s discovery could help us study the conditions in which such pulsars are born.”

Madden said he looks forward to conducting future research in astrophysics after making the rare discovery.

“To make a unique scientific discovery like this so early in my career as a scientist is incredibly motivational,” Madden said. “Now that I have a small taste of what it is like to contribute to the field of astrophysics, I’m inspired to make a bigger impact.”

Pulsars are important to astronomers because their magnetic fields are trillions of times stronger than Earth's magnetic fields, providing the only opportunities to study physics in such extreme environments, Madden said.

Madden’s work with Crawford was part of a Hackman Scholarship summer program in which F&M students conduct challenging, high-level projects to support research by faculty members. The late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman established the Hackman Scholars Program through an endowment.

The program is a wonderful way for faculty to work one-onone with students and help them grow and develop as learners, Crawford said. “The student receives a lot of personalized attention and education, develops research skills and gets to play a real role in important research projects.”

 
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