outstanding contribution to cosmology

Cocconi Prize, outstanding contribution to cosmology


Kyle Dawson (right) and eBOSS co-leadership accept the Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize. CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE EUROPEAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY

The High Energy and Particle Physics Division of the European Physical Society (EPS) held its award ceremony at their annual conference on August 21, 2023, where they honored the field’s most influential research projects. The SDSS/BOSS/eBOSS collaboration won the Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize for an outstanding contribution to particle astrophysics and cosmology in the last fifteen years. The University of Utah was a key contributor to the BOSS and eBOSS collaborations.

“I joined the BOSS experiment when moving to the University of Utah. At the time, it felt like a gamble moving into a new cosmology experiment when starting as an assistant professor. It was clearly the right gamble to make as the experience has defined my career and has set me up to help plan large cosmology experiments over the next decade and beyond,” said Kyle Dawson, principal investigator of eBOSS and professor in physics and astronomy at the U.

The SDSS/BOSS/eBOSS projects are international collaborations involving hundreds of scientists that have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.

Read the full story in @TheU.

Why Scientists Haven’t Solved the Mystery of the OMG Particle

Solving The Mystery Of The 'OMG Particle'


Below the snow-covered peaks of the Andes Mountains, among scattered rocks and the scrub of prairie bushes, there sits at this very moment a 12-ton polyethylene tank holding 3,000 gallons of pure water.


All around it, spread out in every direction over an area nearly the size of Rhode Island, are 1,599 more such tanks, each identical to the first. These lonely sentinels have their eyes on the sky, patiently observing what human eyes cannot in the hopes of solving a mystery that began on another continent and more than three decades prior — a mystery that started with the Oh-My-God event.

It was the night of October 15, 1991. The University of Utah had set up an experimental observatory called the Fly's Eye in the isolation of Dugway Proving Ground, a sprawling 800,000-acre tract of land used by the U.S. Army to test biological and chemical weapons since the 1940s. On that night the Fly's Eye detected something called an air shower, a miles-long explosion of streaming particles invisible to the human eye and caused by high-energy interactions in the upper atmosphere. Each of the telescope’s detectors were designed to point at a different part of the field of view, in a similar way to insects’ compound eyes. It was this that earned the telescope its name. “We were hoping we might pick up something really unusual,” says David Kieda at the University of Utah, who worked on the telescope at the time. (Read more about the Fly's Eye Array here.)

Scientists looked at the data they'd collected and worked backward to deduce the properties of the space-borne particle that led to the air shower. The results weren't just shocking — they were thought to be impossible. They called their discovery the Oh-My-God particle.

While the Oh-My-God particle still remains the most energetic cosmic ray ever detected, a handful of others in the off-the-scales range have been observed in the years since, confirming that it wasn't a miscalculation or instrumentation failure, but in fact a real event. This is why 1,600 giant water-filled tanks have been installed in a grid formation across 3,000 square kilometers of the arid Mendoza region of Argentina. These are the specialized detectors of the Pierre Auger Observatory, forming an array designed to capture evidence of other extremely high-energy cosmic rays. "The quest for identifying the sources of the most energetic particles in the Universe continues," says Carsten Rott, chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the U. "[But] not only at the Auger detector in Argentina, but also right here in Utah with the Telescope Array experiment."


Read the full story by DAVID ROSSIAKY in Slash Gear.

Gravitational Waves

Gravitational waves thrum through the cosmos

Last June dozens of astronomy enthusiasts gathered on the University of Utah campus to watch a live stream of a mysterious announcement. For weeks prior, scientists on Twitter, TikTok and IRL were abuzz with anticipation, awaiting results from the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves’ (NANOGrav) 15 years’ worth of data.


NANOGrav confirmed what had long been suspected—gravitational waves are thrumming throughout the universe, emitting a low-pitched symphony that distorts the fabric of space and time.

 Tanmoy Laskar, assistant professor at the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy thought of organizing the watch party to share in the excitement and discuss the results with the U community. He spoke with @TheU to explain the announcement.

Why is the astrophysics community so excited about the announcement?

This is very exciting because our current astrophysics and cosmology theories tell us that the universe should be full of these gravitational waves and, with these new results, the evidence for the existence of such a gravitational wave background just got much, much stronger. Furthermore, multiple global teams published their own, independent data sets on the same day and each team finds strong evidence for the presence of this gravitational wave background, which means that this signal is very likely real.

An amphitheater with dozens of people face towards a pull-down screen with the NSF and NANOGrav logo on it.


A live stream watch party for the NANOGrav announcement at the U.


How did the collaboration detect the gravitational waves?

Gravitational waves are essentially a small stretch and squeeze in space and time. This means that if we want to detect a gravitational wave going by, we need to measure small perturbations to the distance between free-floating masses or to the time difference between two freely falling clocks. But the gravitational wave background that was the focus of the new studies involves waves with extremely long wavelengths—dozens of light years. This means to detect them we need clocks or masses separated by similar distances.

To navigate this, NANOGrav and their sister experiments used a technique called pulsar timing. Pulsars are rapidly spinning, very dense stars packing the mass of our sun into the size of a small city. They were discovered in 1967 by Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell as extraterrestrial objects producing regular radio pulses. The radio pulses from pulsars tend to be extremely regular because they behave similar to lighthouses. If you look at a lighthouse from the shore, its rotating beam of light flashes towards you at regular intervals. In the same way, pulsars appear as regular radio pulses seen when their lighthouse-like radio beams periodically sweep past Earth.

Astronomers realized that an array of pulsars spread across our galaxy could be used as a network of clocks. By timing the arrival of the pulses from these pulsars, one could look out for passing gravitational waves that would disrupt the timing of radio pulses that would usually arrive like clockwork. Tracking a large number of pulsars for disruptions is much more reliable. The idea is that if a gravitational wave goes through, then not only will there will be offsets in the time of arrival of the pulses from each pulsar from their expected times, such effects will be correlated in a predictable fashion between different pulsars depending on each pulsar’s direction and distance from Earth.

Of course a lot of different effects still need to be accounted for, including the motion of the Earth and planets in the Solar System and the slowing down of each pulsar as it slowly loses energy. Not to mention the fact that these gravitational waves have wavelengths that correspond to several Earth years, meaning that the observations need to be collected for over a decade to make a discovery!

To read the full interview with Lisa Potter visit @TheU

Carsten Rott, New Chair of Physics & Astronomy

Carsten Rott, New Chair of Physics & Astronomy


Professor Carsten Rott has been selected as new chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Rott holds the Jack W. Keuffel Memorial Chair in High Energy Astrophysics and will replace Christophe Boheme as department chair beginning August 1.

Rott’s research explores the Universe in a fundamentally new way, using high-energy neutrinos detected with the IceCube Neutrino Telescope. In particular he is interested in searching for signatures of new physics associated with the high-energy neutrinos we detect. He also searches for new phenomena with the JSNS2 experiment which aims to search for oscillations involving a sterile neutrino in the eV2 mass-splitting range. (A sterile neutrino is believed to interact only via gravity and not via any of the other fundamental interactions of the Standard Model.)

Rott currently focuses on constructing next-generation neutrino detectors to better understand the sources of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe and to probe physics at fundamentally new scales. His team constructs calibration systems for the IceCube Upgrade and develops solutions for a very large volume neutrino detector at the South Pole, building on the expertise of the pioneering cosmic ray experiments conducted by the University of Utah. He also seeks sustainable solutions to construct future experiments with minimal environmental impact.  He can also be found working at Hyper-Kamiokande, a neutrino observatory being constructed on the site of the Kamioka Observatory, near Kamioka, Japan, and he seeks for dark matter with COSINE experiment.

After studying physics as an undergraduate at the Universität Hannover, Rott went on to receive a Ph.D. from Purdue University for work on the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF). He has been a member of the IceCube Neutrino Telescope since the start of the construction of the detector in 2005.  As a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State University he performed detector calibration and verification efforts for IceCube. For this task he traveled multiple times to the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. Later he moved to The Ohio State University as a senior fellow of the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP). In 2013 he became an assistant professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and was subsequently promoted to tenured associate Professor.

In 2021 Rott became a professor at the U where most recently he served as department director of graduate studies. He will hold the position of chair through December 2025.

Rott “is an exceptional educator and researcher, and has my complete confidence and support in his role as Chair,” remarked Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science who made the announcement on June 28. “I look forward to working with Carsten to advance the department, particularly as it moves to its new home in the Crocker Science Complex in 2025.”

“I am grateful to Professor Christoph Boehme for his leadership over the past four years, first as Interim Chair, and then as Chair for the last three years.,” Trapa continued. “Christoph has made deep contributions to the department in advancing its research and educational missions during a time that was often consumed with the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Boheme will serve as Special Advisor to the Chair for the period August 1, 2023 through June 30, 2024.

About the Department

New home for the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy

The U’s  Department of Physics & Astronomy is committed to pursuing key science questions within an inclusive academic community; to training and diversifying the next generation of researchers, educators, and technology workforce leaders; and to inspiring an appreciation for knowledge in students and the wider community.

In pursuit of this mission, the department supports the highest levels of research and teaching among its faculty members. We strive to enable the success of undergraduate and graduate students by creating an academically excellent, efficient, and comfortable learning environment. Our goal is that organizations and individuals in the local and global community will benefit from our research and accomplishments.

The Department of Physics & Astronomy will be relocating from the James Fletcher Building to the new Applied Science Project as part of the Crocker Science Complex. The department will offer classes in its new home in Spring Semester, 2025.

Sky Survey Data Releases 2 Million Stellar Objects

The universe is big, and it’s getting bigger.

To study dark energy, the mysterious force behind the accelerating expansion of our universe, scientists are using the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) to map nearly 40 million galaxies, quasars and stars. Today, the collaboration publicly released its first batch of data, with nearly 2 million objects for researchers to explore.

The 80-terabyte data set comes from 2,480 exposures taken over six months during the experiment’s “survey validation” phase in 2020 and 2021. Between turning the instrument on and beginning the official science run, researchers made sure their plan for using the telescope would meet their science goals—for example, by checking how long it took to observe galaxies of different brightness, and by validating the selection of stars and galaxies to observe.

“The fact that DESI works so well, and that the amount of science-grade data it took during survey validation is comparable to previous completed sky surveys, is a monumental achievement,” said Nathalie Palanque-Delabrouille, co-spokesperson for DESI and a scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), which manages the experiment. “This milestone shows that DESI is a unique spectroscopic factory whose data will not only allow the study of dark energy but will also be coveted by the whole scientific community to address other topics, such as dark matter, gravitational lensing and galactic morphology.”

Kyle Dawson

DESI uses 5,000 robotic positioners to move optical fibers that capture light from objects millions or billions of light-years away. It is the most powerful multi-object survey spectrograph in the world, able to measure light from more than 100,000 galaxies in one night. That light tells researchers how far away an object is, building a 3-D cosmic map.

“This new sample represents the first science-quality data taken with this powerful new instrument. These survey-validation data are better quality and provide spectra and classification of a wider range of stars, galaxies and quasars than the data we expect in the main five-year program,” said Professor Kyle Dawson. Dawson of the University of Utah was one of the two primary leads of the survey validation effort and is also DESI co-spokesperson.  “We have learned from these data how to build the most effective cosmology program.”

Read the entire article in @TheU.

Ramón Barthelemy Out to Innovate

Photo Credit: Matthew Crawley

Ramón Barthelemy wins 2023 LGBTQ+ Educator of the Year

The U physicist was one of three winners of the 2023 Out to Innovate Awards that recognizes outstanding achievement by LGBTQ+ people in STEM.

When asked how his life experiences have shaped his perspective as an educator, Dr. Barthelemy said, “…being queer has impacted how I think about binaries. I do not see the world as a place where there is one incorrect and one correct answer. Rather I see a very complex world in which multiple kinds of explanations and models can be used to understand our lives and the world around us. As a scientist, this dips into ideas of philosophy of science and how we are not necessarily claiming to have a T truth, but instead are working to develop and refine models that help us explain and predict the natural world.”

His nominators noted, “…he combines stellar graduate work in physics education research with some of the deepest and most significant work on gender and LGBTQ+ issues in physics that has so far been written.” When asked what advice he would give his younger self and scientists just beginning their adventures in physics, Barthelemy “…would tell a younger version of me to trust myself and to build a community of people who support one another and want to see each other succeed.”

The announcement of the award comes during National Pride Month.

Read the full article by Lisa Potter in @TheU.


Information Engines Pay the Piper

Physicists sometimes get a bad rap. Theoretical physicists even more so. Consider Sheldon Cooper in the TV sit-com The Big Bang Theory:

: I’m a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains.
Penny: Who’s Radiohead?
Sheldon: (after several seconds of twitching) I have a working knowledge of the important things in the universe.

Mikhael Semaan

But a working knowledge of anything is always informed and arguably improved — even transformed — by robust and analytical “thought experiments.” In fact, theoretical physics is key to advancing our understanding of the universe, from the cosmological to the particle scale, through mathematical models.

That is why Mikhael Semaan, Ph.D. and others like him spend their time in the abstract, standing on the figurative shoulders of past giants and figuring out what could happen . . . theoretically. That Semaan is also one of the celebrated postdoctoral researchers/mentors in the Science Research Initiative (SRI), is a coup for undergraduates at the University of Utah who “learn by doing” in a variety of labs and field sites.

“The SRI is awesome,” Semaan says. It’s “a dream job where I can continue advancing my own research while ‘bridging the gap’ in early undergraduate research experiences, giving them access to participation in the cutting edge alongside personalized mentoring.”

Want to learn how to bake something? Hire a baker. Better still, watch the baker bake (and maybe even lick the bowl when allowed). And now that Semaan’s second first-author paper — done with senior investigator Jim Crutchfield of UC Davis, his former PhD advisor — has just “dropped,” students get to witness in real time how things get done, incrementally adding to the trove of scientific knowledge that from past experience, we know, can change the world.

Theory’s abstraction lets us examine certain essential features of the subjects and models we study, which in Semaan and Crutchfield’s case concern the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Is it possible to run a car from the hard drive of a computer? In the parlance of this brand of physics, the short answer is, “Yes, theoretically.”

Thermodynamics of Information Processing

From that question as a jumping off point, Semaan explains further. “The primary impact of our contribution is, for now, mostly to other theorists working out the thermodynamics of information processing. … [W]e suggest a change in viewpoint that simplifies and unifies various preceding lines of inquiry, by combining familiar tools to uncover new results.”

The physicist and writer C.P. Snow said that the first three laws of thermodynamics can be pithily summarized with, “You can’t win. You can’t even break even. You can’t stay out of the game.” Semaan elaborates on the second law, “the universe must increase its entropy — its degree of ‘disorder’ — on average…[b]esides offering an excuse for a messy room, this statement has far-reaching implications and places strict limits on the efficiency of converting one form of energy to another … .”

These limits are obeyed by everything from the molecular motors in our bodies to the increasingly sophisticated computers in our pockets to the impacts of global industry on the Earth’s climate and beyond. Yet in the second law’s case, there’s a catch: it turns out that information in the abstract is itself a form of entropy. This insight is key to the much-celebrated “Landauer bound:” stated simply, learning about a system — going from uncertainty to certainty — fundamentally costs energy.

But what about the converse situation? If it costs energy to “reduce” uncertainty, can we extract energy by “gaining” it — for example, by scrambling a hard drive? If so, how much?

Ratchet Information

To answer this question, previous researchers, including Crutchfield, imagine a “ratchet” which moves in one direction along an “information tape,” interacting with one “bit” at a time. As it does so, the ratchet modifies the tape’s statistical properties. That “tape” could be the hard drive in your computer or could be a sequence of base pairs in a strand of DNA.

“In this situation, by scrambling an initially ordered tape, yes: we can actually extract heat from the environment, but only by increasing randomness on the tape.” While the second law still holds, it is modified. “The randomness of the information in the tape is itself a form of entropy,” explains Semaan further, “and we can reduce the entropy in our thermal environment as long as we sufficiently increase it in the tape.”

In the literature, the laws bounding this behavior are termed “information processing second laws,” in reference to their explicit accounting for information processing (via modifying the tape) in the second law of thermodynamics. In this new paper, Semaan and Crutchfield uncover an “information processing first law,” a similar modification to the first law of thermodynamics, which unifies and strengthens various second laws in the literature. It appears to do more, too: it also offers a way to tighten those second laws — to place stricter limits on the allowed behavior — for systems which have “nonequilibrium steady states.”

Non-equilibrium steady state systems — our bodies, the global climate, and our computers are all examples — need to constantly absorb and dissipate energy, and so stay out of equilibrium, even in “steady” conditions (contrast a cup of coffee left out: its “steady” state is complete equilibrium with the room).

“It turns out,” says Semaan, “that in this case we must ‘pay the piper’:  we can still scramble the tape to extract heat, but only if we do so fast enough to keep up with the non-equilibrium steady states.” To demonstrate their new bound, the authors cooked up a simple, tunable model to visualize how much tighter the new results are with concrete, if idealized, examples. “This sort of idealization is a powerful tool,” says Semaan, “because with it we can ‘zoom in’ on only those features we want to highlight and understand, in this case what having nonequilibrium steady states changes about previous results.”

This uni-directional “ratcheting” mechanism may, in fact, someday lead to engineering a device that harnesses energy from scrambling a hard drive. But first, beyond engineering difficulties, there is much left to understand about the mathematical, idealized limits of this behavior. In other words, we still have a ways to go, even “in theory.” There are plenty of remaining questions to address, the fodder for any theoretical physicist worth their salt.

Complex Systems

However, far from being “only” a theoretical exercise, says Semaan, “these continued extensions, reformulations, and corrections are necessary for us to be able to understand how real-world, highly interconnected, complex systems,” like the human body, forest ecosystems, the planetary climate, etc., “exploit (or don’t) the dynamical interplay between energy and information to function. Since so many of the intricate systems we see in nature (including ourselves) exhibit non-equilibrium steady states,” he continues, “this is a [required] step to understanding how they [do this].”

Information ratchet system: At each time step, the ratchet moves one step to the right along the tape, and interacts with one symbol at a time. As it does so, it exchanges energy in various forms with its environment — signified by the T, aux, and λ bubbles in the picture. After running for a long time, the “output tape” generated by the interactions with the ratchet has different statistical properties compared to the “input tape” it receives. The information processing first and second laws are statements about the fundamental relationship between the energy exchanged with the environment and the information processing in the tape. Credit: Semaan and Crutchfield.

This is heady stuff, and the Southern California native is positively thrilled to be sharing it with young, eager undergraduates at the U through the SRI. Semaan is keenly aware of how critical the undergraduate experience in research needs to be to turn out future physicists. A son of Lebanese immigrants who both attended college in the U.S., neither were research scientists and no one he knew had studied physics. At California State University, Long Beach, where Semaan first declared electrical engineering as his major, he was “seduced into physics” through a series of exceptional and inspirational mentors. In the SRI, he hopes to carry this experience forward, and open new doors for undergraduate students.

It was the Complexity Sciences Center at UC Davis, when he applied to graduate school, that caught his attention because of its interdisciplinary nature and concern with systems in which “the whole appears to be greater than the sum of its parts.” The study of emerging systemic behaviors, helmed by Crutchfield, the Center’s Director, ultimately inspired both his PhD and his decision to join the SRI, working with students across the entire College of Science.

Following the third law of thermodynamics, Mikhael Semaan clearly “can’t stay out of the game” (nor would he want to), but one could argue he’s more than breaking even at it.

The release of this paper, titled “First and second laws of information processing by nonequilibrium dynamical states” in the journal Physical Review E is proof of that.

by David Pace

Sandra J. Bromley Scholarship


Sandra J. Bromley Scholarship

Providing a Role Model for New Generations

Ray Greer. Banner Photo above: Dannon Allred, Ray Greer and his wife Jill, Michaela Fluck, Keegan Benfield, Eliza Roberts. Credit: Matt Crawley

The Sandra J. Bromley scholarship is a full-tuition scholarship for undergraduate students in the College of Science. It provides in-state tuition, up to 15 credit hours per semester, for eight semesters which allows each recipient to complete their degree. The program, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, is funded by the generosity of Ray Greer, BS’86, in Mathematics.

Each year, a freshman student is selected as a new Bromley scholar, and rolls into the program, while a senior student graduates. This unique model provides continuous funding to the students and allows the College of Science to assist and monitor the students as they progress through their academic program.

“The Bromley scholarship is extremely valuable because it can serve a student throughout their entire undergraduate career,” says Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “The cumulative effect for the student is truly profound. Each year we see the incredible results.”

In addition, Greer and his wife, Jill, host the Bromley scholars at least once a year on campus. The informal luncheon allows the students to report on their progress and discuss any problems or concerns.

“I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting acquainted with the undergraduates as they progress through their academic goals, and it is always a pleasure to see their progression and academic interest flourish over time. In all I have done throughout my life, this has been one of the greatest and most rewarding experiences I have had the opportunity to be a part of,” says Greer.

Role Model

When Greer was just 12 years old, his mother, Sandra J. Bromley, moved her young family from Texas to Utah. The year was 1976. Bromley was promptly hired at the University of Utah and enjoyed a successful career as a technical illustrator in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences under the direction of Frank H. Brown.

“My mother was the single greatest influence in my life,” says Greer. “She taught me the value of hard work and perseverance. She also insisted that college was not optional. It was like going from junior high to high school — you just did it!”

Greer enrolled at the U for fall semester 1981 and was initially interested in computer science and engineering. However, computer science was highly competitive at the time so available classes were scarce.

“Fortunately, Hugo Rossi, a math professor, convinced me that if I majored in mathematics I could get as much course work in computer science as I wanted,” says Greer.

For several years Greer worked through the rigorous mathematics major requirements. He persevered and completed his math degree in 1986.

Then, in 2000, Greer’s mother moved back to Texas for the remaining years of her life. She passed away in 2011. Shortly thereafter, Greer established the Sandra J. Bromley scholarship to honor his mother by providing a way for deserving students to earn a college degree.

“She worked hard to provide for her family, but her greatest regret in life was not attending college herself, hence the vision behind the Bromley scholarship,” says Greer.

“Her requirement was that she would support me as long as I didn’t quit school,” says Greer.  “That is why the Bromley scholarship requires continuous attendance.”

Solving Problems

Greer has more than 40 years of experience in logistics and transportation industries. He has held senior management positions for Greatwide Logistics Services, Newgistics, Ryder Logistics and FedEx. He served as president of BNSF Logistics, headquartered near Dallas, Texas, from 2011 to 2018.

“Math allows me to think critically about situations and problems generally. Not just numerically but logically, to find patterns and trends that point to likely outcomes,” he says.

In 2018, Greer was named CEO of Omnitracs, a leading company in onboard technology for the transportation industry. Omnitracs is an international billion-dollar company that provides telematic devices and logistics to support drivers and their organizations to be compliant, safe and efficient.

“Math is universal and most importantly it teaches you discipline and persistence to work a problem until it is solved. That process of critical thinking and problem-solving has served me well throughout my entire career,” says Greer.

In 2021, Greer sold Omnitracs and transitioned to advisory board work as well as becoming an operating partner for Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe, focused on supply chain technology investments.

Ray Greer has high hopes and expectations for today’s college students. His advice: “Connecting with people — not apps and cell phones — will differentiate you from the competition.”

The Bromley Scholars

Eliza Robert

“I love the entire vibe of the university”

Eliza Roberts is the most recent recipient of the Bromley scholarship. A freshman at the U, she is pursuing a degree in applied math and physics, with an emphasis in astronomy and astrophysics. Being awarded this scholarship has made Roberts’ experience at the U even more valuable. “It has truly allowed me to focus more on my classes, and even take classes that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise,” she says. “With the scholarship, I don’t have to worry about the financial aspects of college like I was fully intending to, which means that I can explore my passions and dedicate my time to learning.”

In addition to her hard work as a student, Roberts works as a math tutor in the TRIO office at the U. One of her proudest accomplishments is receiving her Girl Scout Gold award, for which she focused on creating a safe backyard space for adults with disabilities. 

Roberts lives in Salt Lake City and makes the most of her time at the U participating in LEAP classes, a year-long learning community for entering University students, and even discovering top-secret study and nap spots on campus. “I love the entire vibe of the university,” she says. “I feel safe, valued, and free. I have been able to explore myself more than I have in years, and it has helped me figure out who I want to be.”

~Julia St. Andre

Dannon Allred
“Space is simply beautiful”

Dannon Allred was awarded the Bromley Scholarship in 2021 and just completed his sophomore year at the U. A passionate learner, he is studying physics with an astronomy emphasis. “Ever since I’ve been interested in science, I’ve felt a pull towards physics and astronomy,” he says. “There’s just a lot in astronomy that spikes my curiosity, there’s a lot that’s unknown, and [outer] space is simply beautiful.”

The Bromley scholarship has given Allred the opportunity to experience college without any financial worries and has allowed him to focus more of his energy on his passion for astrophysics. “Obviously one of the most daunting things about college is paying for it, and that’s a lot of stress that most students have to deal with,” he says. “I would say that’s what’s most impactful about the Bromely scholarship because it allows me to go through college stress-free in that aspect.” 

On top of his astrophysics studies, Allred has been involved in several research projects on campus. “In my freshman year, I was part of Dr. Boehme’s … lab as part of the Science Research Initiative doing research on Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) using spintronics,” explains Allred. “This spring, I did an introductory research project analyzing the spectral emission features of the Sombrero Galaxy with Dr. Anil Seth” who specializes in astrophysics. 

Allred’s hope is to complete a graduate degree in the field as well. Not surprisingly, when he’s not busy studying stars and galaxies far, far away, he loves astrophotography, admiring the universe through the lens of his camera.   ~ Julia St. Andre

Michaela Fluck
“Proceeding Into the Wilderness”

Michaela Fluck works in the Zelikowsky Lab, which researches neural circuits that affect stress, fear, and social behavior. “I’ve always been interested in neurobiology, since I was a kid,” she states. “I’ve had family members who’ve had strokes and other brain injuries.”

A biology major with a psychology minor, Fluck says the study of abnormal psychology is also a passion of hers. “Seeing what can go wrong with the brain and what’s behind [it] …  is super interesting as well.”

Fluck was inspired to become a doctor by her patients at Primary Children’s Hospital, where she works as a phlebotomist. “I want to become an advocate for patients,” she says, “and help people work through the difficulties of medicine. Kids tend to hate procedures no matter what, so helping them work through the procedures is honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Her favorite class was organic chemistry. “Not a lot of pre-meds can say that,” she jokes. Fluck also loved taking an acting class at the U which relieved the stress of being a STEM student and harked back to her time as an actress in high school, especially her appearance in the the late Stephen Sondheim’s epic musical saga about daring to venture Into the Woods~ CJ Siebeneck

Keegan Benfield
Who knew I could do that?”

As a Bromley Scholar, Keegan Benfield BS’23, was able to spend more time on scientific passions, such as research and projects. “The Bromley Scholarship and the U have helped shape me to be the best that I can be.” 

Along with his double majors in mechanical engineering and physics, Benfield focuses his time on humanitarian efforts, volunteering with Youthlinc and Real life programs. He’s the president of the university’s marksmen club, and has attended National Collegiate events at the National and Junior level.

Prior to graduation, Benfield worked in the Deemyad Lab, researching condensed matter physics. The Lab focuses on theoretical physics, especially the physics of matter at extreme conditions of temperature and pressure.

One of Benfield’s favorite classes was Introduction to Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. “It was an ‘ah-ha!’ class that was challenging and fun,” Benfield says. “I have learned and expanded my knowledge in ways that amaze me. Who knew I could do that?”

Benfield recently completed a summer internship at Cosm and developed educational programs for planetariums using Digistar 7, which features full-dome programs and production services, giant screen films formatted for full-dome theaters, premium-quality projection domes, and theater design services. He plans on getting a master’s or PhD and work in a national laboratory or research company.   ~ CJ Seibeneck


View a LIst of all Bromley Scholars (as of June 2023) and brief updates on their whereabouts

Tinker Toy Rises

After months of earth-moving, the Applied Science Project gets some serious hardware.

Senior Risk and Safety Manager Carlyn Chester and flagman Alan. Credit: David Pace

These days pedestrians along University Street on the westside of campus are typically met by Alan, a bearded, sixty-something employee and certified UDOT flagger dressed in Okland Construction garb, including hard hat with neck sunshade that cascades to his shoulders and sometimes flaps in the wind. Alan’s here keeping order at the gated threshold to the construction site of the Applied Science Project and is happy to give you a fist bump as you walk to work along the detour they’ve put up. Armed with a push broom, and a mobile phone, he slows traffic for entering and exiting trucks, and lines up arrivals carrying everything from timbers to a porta-potty called “Honey Bucket.”

On the morning of June 7th, the team was preparing for the delivery of a giant tower crane, in sections, which will stand around 265 feet tall for a full year at the site like a giant Tinker Toy. A tower crane features a jib or “jib arm” as a horizontal beam used to support the load clear of the main support. It can typically lift 19.8 tons (18 metric tons).

“So these cranes are so big they need to have all these counterweights and stuff,” says Carlyn Chester BS’09, Senior Risk and Safety Manager at Okland Construction. She spells her name for us: “Like George Carlin [the late sometimes raunchy comedian] but with a ‘y’ . . . and I’m not a dirty old man,” she says with a laugh. Chester oversees all of the many Okland projects at the University of Utah.  The cranes need to be “strong enough to pick up those tower pieces,” she continues over the relentless beeping of a nearby steer loader pushing gravel.  “You need a crane to build a crane. You have to put in all the counterweights and footings . . . [There are] two big semis worth of materials just to get that crane set up tomorrow before the tower crane comes in.”

Credit: Todd Anderson

The gaping hole in front of the old Stewart Building—site of the new Applied Science Building—is squared off with wooden bulwarks holding up the sides (temporary) backed by a cement retaining wall (permanent). It looks like a neatly squared-off grave for a giant of sorts, two stories deep at the back and the sides sloping down the hill to a mere curb at the street. It’s a striking contrast to the bucolic Cottam’s Gulch with its brick path and towering hybrid trees to the north which will be a preserved historic asset to what will become the College of Science’s Crocker Science Complex.

“Did you find any bones?” we ask. Back in 2017 when the George Thomas Building was being retrofitted and expanded for the Crocker Science Center, Okland unearthed human bones that turned out to be the remains of old cadavers that had been discarded decades earlier by the medical school, originally located in the Life Sciences Building, another Okland project on campus.

“We found a couple of things,” says Chester. “The paleontologist people were here every single day when we were digging.” (It turns out the bones were from modern animals.)

Credit: Todd Anderson

Carlyn points at a boxy, hexagonal structure to the left where a temporary footing has been positioned in the bottom of it. The footing is inspected by a structural engineer “to make sure it’s level and plumb so that when we start building, [the tower crane is] stable. There’s so much science that goes into it and mathematics,” she says.

Meanwhile, Alan has ambled back to the street to talk to a truck driver who has just pulled up. When he returns, he and Carlyn pose for a picture together­–all smiles under their hard hats and neck shades that faintly remind one of Lawrence of Arabia’s. Alone, we ask Alan to “Flash the U” for us which he struggles a bit with. “My dad went to BYU,” he says sheepishly.

Bright and early next morning, Alan was back giving his signature fist bumps to passers-by. They stopped for a few moments to witness the newly arrived crane-to-build-a-crane with a synchronized telescoping boom as high (or higher) than one of those vertiginous, gut-wrenching rides at Lagoon amusement park north of here. Soon the semis arrived with tower segments which were off-loaded, rigged and then lofted off the ground vertically.

Even the rowdy fox squirrels in Cottam’s Gulch paused in a moment of awe as the Tinker Toy began to rise, a flash of yellow latticed steel against the summer sky.

By David Pace




Utah’s Fly’s Eye Telescope Array

Closing in on the cosmic origins of the “OMG Particle”

The helicopter was flying high through the night sky with its door slightly ajar. Johannes Eser and Matthew Rodencal were in the back controlling a laser pointing out through the gap. They aimed towards a balloon 35 kilometers above them and fired.

It sounds like a scene from a spy movie, but Eser and Rodencal, then at the Colorado School of Mines, were actually testing a plan to spot ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, the most energetic particles ever discovered. They stream across the universe before slamming into our atmosphere and emitting a tiny flash of light. The laser was supposed to mimic that flash.

This twilight helicopter ride happened nearly a decade ago, but is part of a saga that goes back to at least 1991. In October that year, we detected the single most energetic particle ever seen. It had the kinetic energy of a bowling ball dropped from shoulder height, crammed into a subatomic-sized package. It quickly became known as the “Oh-My-God particle” and, naturally enough, scientists were desperate to know where it came from.

Since then, we have spotted many similar particles. Huge ground-based detectors have provided us with maps of where they might come from, together with a shortlist of the extreme cosmic objects that could produce them. But truth be told, we still don’t have all the answers. That is why scientists now want to take the cosmic ray hunt into the atmosphere – and ultimately into space – in an effort to solve the mystery … once and for all.

This story really began with another balloon in 1911. At that time, physicist Victor Hess climbed into a hot air balloon, taking with him instruments to measure levels of radiation as he ascended. He found the readings increased as he went up – contrary to the prevailing belief that they would decline with altitude – and concluded that this radiation must be caused by something coming from space, not Earth. That something became known as cosmic rays, though we now know them to be particles, often protons or clusters of protons and neutrons.

Cosmic rays

When cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, they usually collide with molecules in the atmosphere, producing a shower of energetic particles that rain down. (These descendants of the original particle still contain a lot of energy and have been suspected of interfering with the electronics of aircraft.) It is this shower of secondary particles that we have learned to detect, allowing us to infer the energy of the cosmic ray that produced it. We now know that cosmic rays come in a range of energies. The least energetic are the most common, with each square centimeter of the outer atmosphere being hit once a minute by one of them. The most energetic are much rarer – they strike only once a century per square kilometer.

David Keida

The rays that Hess detected were relatively modest in energy, it turns out, measuring less than 1 gigaelectronvolt (GeV). It wasn’t until the 1960s that more extreme versions were found, when physicist John Linsley used an array of ground detectors in New Mexico to spot the shower created by a cosmic ray with the vastly greater energy of 100 exaelectronvolts (EeV).

That was a staggering find. But the best was yet to come. In the 1980s, a larger project called the Fly’s Eye telescope array was built in Utah [at Dugway Proving Ground, see photo above]. It had more than 100 detectors, each equipped with a 1.5-meter-wide mirror to look for the flash of particles colliding in the atmosphere. Each of the telescope’s detectors were designed to point at a different part of the field of view, in a similar way to insects’ compound eyes. It was this that earned the telescope its name. “We were hoping we might pick up something really unusual,” says David Kieda at the University of Utah, who worked on the telescope at the time.


Read the full article at New Scientist (subscription required).