Physics professor studies spinning stars

Catherine Lovekin uses unique computer program to predict stellar evolution.

From Earth’s surface, stars appear to be indiscriminate points of light. In reality, they are spinning, pulsating and sometimes exploding balls of nuclear energy. Catherine Lovekin of Mount Allison’s Department of Physics studies these stars through a unique computer modelling system. Her research may improve scientific understanding of stars and how we use them to study the universe.

 “Even within astronomy, there’s a perception that stars are solved,” said Lovekin. “We know the broad strokes of evolution of stars … but there’s still so many details that we need to work out and people tend to forget that.”

Lovekin is one of a handful of researchers in the world to use a two-dimensional computational model to study stars. She said most research on stars to date have used a one-dimensional computational model, which only accounts for a star’s radius. Her model accounts for both a star’s radius and how spherical it is in shape. All stars spin to some degree, and the faster one spins the less spherical it becomes, bulging at the center.

The shape of a star is critical to how it can be studied, said Lovekin. Attributes of a star, such as its brightness, distance from Earth or age, are often determined by measurements that assume it is spherical, but these measurements may be biased if the star is rapidly spinning and bulging at the center. Lovekin aims to better predict how a star looks when it spins by using her two-dimensional computer model.

Lovekin said astronomers are not entirely sure why stars spin. Spinning becomes very important to the shape of stars that are over 10 times the mass of our sun, which may rotate over 200 times as fast as our native star.

The physical attributes of stars are critical to how we study the universe, said Lovekin. These may be used to tell how far away other galaxies are and therefore how the universe has changed over time.

“My field is important because everything else in astronomy depends on stars,” said Lovekin. “If you don’t properly understand stars, you’re not going to properly understand anything else about the universe,” said Lovekin.

 One attribute of stars Lovekin studies is how stars lose mass, which is a critical aspect of how they change over time. Some large stars shed their mass in enormous explosions known as supernovae, which seed the universe with the elements necessary for planets to form and whose remnants are telling of how galaxies formed. Lovekin’s modelling may more precisely show how these stars lose mass and in turn how accurate our knowledge about them is.

 Lovekin is currently the sole faculty member to teach astronomy courses at Mount Allison. She will have two Mount Allison students working for her over the summer to study binary star systems, in which two stars orbit each other, and to study how a star’s spinning affects its angle relative to other stars.

 Lovekin said she believes that studying astronomy can inspire an interest in science.

“I like to say astronomy is the gateway drug to science,” she said. “There’s a lot of emphasis these days on getting people to study the STEM fields, and getting them interested in astronomy early is a great way to do that.”

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