Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Professor charts the universe’s big bangs

Jennifer Hoffman’s research is a blast. A huge blast. Think: Supernova.

Hoffman, an assistant professor of astronomy, studies the life of stars, specifically in the period when they go from rapidly-burning, churning balls of gas to the moment they implode and then explode in a supernova, spewing streams of energy and particles across the heavens. 

It’s in those periods, she says, that scientists get a glimpse into the processes by which stars live, change and die.

“These are the internal workings of the universe, at some level,” she says. 

“People have always been fascinated by the skies. Think back to ancient times, it was part of their religion, they way they looked at the world,” Hoffman says. “I think it’s important that we understand as much as we can about the universe. When we understand more about the universe, we understand more about our environment on a large scale.”

Hoffman came to DU this fall after earning a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and nearly five years of post-doctoral research at Rice University and the University of California-Berkeley. Her research focuses on the material surrounding massive stars in the span following the stars collapse and ultimate explosion, when that material is illuminated by energy from the blast. 

By examining spectra of the light from massive stars and the geometric configurations of gas and dust surrounding them, Hoffman seeks insight into how these stars influence their galactic surroundings, including triggering or disrupting nearby star formation.

“The galaxies themselves are like ecological systems,” she says. “Everything in a galaxy affects everything else.”

She is presenting her latest work, a project examining the interactions of supernovae with the material surrounding them, at a gathering of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Hawaii the week of Dec. 10. 

The IAU, founded nearly 100 years ago, includes almost 10,000 astronomers at the Ph.D. level and above. The conference, called “Massive Stars as Cosmic Engines,” will focus specifically on the biggest stars and how they shape the universe. 

“At a conference like this, you really get to hear about the cutting edge, the work that’s going on right now,” she says.

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