Distant worlds from a distant land

In today’s blog we glimpse into the world of an astronomer in Southeast Asia with Dr. Suraphong Yuma, doctoral degree from Kyoto University, and faculty in the Department of Physics at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

David: Can you give us some sense of the technical difficulties in observing galaxies that existed when the universe was young? How deep into the universe do your observations go?

Suraphong: I think there are two main difficulties in observing distant galaxies, which are equivalent to galaxies in the early universe. First, the galaxy becomes dimmer and dimmer when it is further away from us. Secondly, due to the expansion of the universe, light emitted from the galaxy at a specific wavelength is shifted redward to the infrared regime, which is much more difficult to observe especially from the ground. Currently, we can dive into the universe almost a billion times dimmer than our naked eyes can see.

David: What have you learned about black hole feedback from studying outflows from galaxies at high redshift?

Suraphong: Well, I am trying to understand the gas outflowing process that occurs in star-forming galaxies. Outflow is an important mechanism that helps enrich the chemical abundance of the universe and also deplete the gas content in galaxies. Energy sources driving outflow from galaxies can be either supernova or black hole feedback. The main difference is the energy that both feedbacks can provide. The feedback from a supermassive black hole of active galactic nuclei has higher energy to drive gas out of the host galaxy at a faster speed. It is believed that the black hole feedback is responsible for star-forming suppression in massive galaxies.

David: How will the James Webb Telescope help further research on galaxy formation?

Suraphong: It will help a lot. As you may see in the first question, the distant galaxies are dimmer than nearby ones and the observed wavelengths are shifted to the infrared. JWST can solve all of these problems. One of the primary goals of JWST is to search for galaxies in the very early universe, beyond what we can observe with current telescopes.

David: Can you describe the differences in how people relate/connect to each other from your experience in the scientific communities in Japan and Thailand?

Suraphong: Well, this is quite difficult to explain. I think among the academics there is not much difference. Everyone likes to talk about their research and is curious to learn more about others' works. We can have straight comments and intensive discussions among collaborators in Japan. On the other hand, we do not have many astronomers or astrophysicists in Thailand. So when we talk about our research in Thailand, it was like introducing this field of research instead of having intensive discussions.

David: In my experience, if someone at a coffee shop in Italy discovers that I work on black holes, they are more likely to be curious and to want to engage me in a positive way. Not only does that happen less in the United States, but I find that on the few occasions that someone does approach me, they are from a foreign country. Can you describe some anecdotes of your experience with the public at large?

Suraphong: Normally, I did not talk to people outside academia about my work. But if someone happens to know that I am an astronomer, they would look very surprised both in Japan and Thailand. If they even know that I am studying black holes, they would be curious and ask me a lot of questions concerning not only the black hole but scientific questions they have ever had in their life. That was pretty fun though. Another funny thing is some of them related an astronomer with an astrologer or a fortune teller and ask about their fortune.

David: Thank you Professor!

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