Ian Czekala

Ian Czekala has written 23 posts for astrobites

Strands in the Cosmic Web

Throughout much of the 20th century, it was an open question in astronomy as to what the universe looked like on the largest observable scales. Were galaxies and galaxy clusters distributed uniformly throughout space, or was there a pattern? Thanks to galaxy surveys we know that, on large scales, the matter distribution of the universe is clumpy instead of smooth. Through these surveys we observe directly the distribution of luminous matter like stars, gas, and galaxies. However, luminous matter comprises only a small fraction of the matter in the universe (17%), the rest is dark matter which interacts via gravity but does not absorb and emit electromagnetic radiation like normal matter. Theoretical simulations of dark matter cosmologies firmly predict that there is a dark matter backbone to the cosmic web, with filaments of dark matter stretching between clusters of galaxies, though has not yet been a robust detection of a dark matter filament, until now.

How common is Common Envelope evolution?

It’s a fact of the universe that most stars are members of a binary system. However, our knowledge of stellar evolution has most thoroughly treated the case of a single, isolated star evolving according to its own schedule, dictated by the well-understood equations of stellar structure. What happens when the binary stars have tight enough orbits to influence each other?

Searching for doppelgangers of “Stellar Reionizers”

Any photon with a wavelength shorter than 912 angstroms (the Lyman limit) will ionize neutral hydrogen by raising the atom’s electron from the ground state to an unbound state at infinity. From measurements of quasar absorption spectra, we know that the reionization of the intergalactic medium from its previously neutral state (at redshifts greater than 7) to the highly ionized state we observe today was complete by redshift of ~7. However, we still do not know which sources were responsible for producing the ionizing photons.

How do astronomers measure the brightness of something?

Sounds like a simple question. When you go out and look at the stars at night with your naked eye, you might be able to pretty easily sort out which stars are the brightest, which are the faintest, and come up with some ranking of them for those in between. Now, do this with telescopes…

Some Data about Data

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “5 hours in the library can save 5 months in the lab.” It’s true. Productive scientists are aware of what other scientists have done before them, that way they may “stand on the shoulders of giants” so that they might see farther. Linking datasets to papers improves the usability of previously published research and is one major way to increase the overall productivity of the scientific field.

Quasars, the Lyman Alpha Forest, and the Reionization of the Universe

While high-redshift quasars are very interesting objects in their own right, their incredible luminosities allow them to act as background light sources that illuminate the intervening universe on our line of sight. One could think of quasars as giant flashlights that the universe uses to make really interesting spectroscopic shadow puppets back here on Earth.


Along with several other graduate students from Harvard University, I attended the first EVLA data reduction workshop in Socorro, New Mexico. Around 25 graduate students and researchers were present, along with many post-doctoral fellows and NRAO staff that devoted their time to help us learn how to use CASA, or Common Astronomy Software Applications.

In the Shadow of a Circumstellar Disk

We know other stars have planets. We know that certain stars have circumstellar disks. We know that before there are planets, there must be a protoplanetary disk; we also know that these two states must be connected through a evolutionary path which includes planet formation.

What if–if we were just so lucky–we found a protoplanetary system that had a disk, that was aligned so perfectly, and that was bright enough, and ….

Dusty Supernovae

Many astronomers have an ambivalent relationship towards “dust” in our cosmos. Not quite like what you may find at the back of your cupboard, astrophysical dust is really more like smoke, with particulates roughly micron-sized and composed of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and other things that astronomers broadly term “metals.” Some of the best candidate sites for dust formation include cool stellar winds from evolved stars, and in the aftermath of supernovae and novae.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

The units we use to measure time have until recently been always derived from the movements of the heavens, which we have considered immutable because we have never had the accuracy of measurement to notice otherwise. Starting with the Babylonians, we divided our days into neatly divisible blocks of hours, minutes, and then seconds. The advent of extremely accurate atomic clocks that rely upon the hyperfine quantum transitions of Cesium-133 atoms have challenged our traditional notions of time.

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