By: Don Mock firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you remember that scene in the “Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls aside the curtain to reveal what’s really going on behind the scenes with all of the Wizard’s bluster and fancy pyrotechnics? For UF fourth-year physics graduate student Daniel Brooker, the reality of the physical world that you and I perceive is all very well and good, but he wants to know what’s really going on. He wants to pull the curtain aside to see the inner workings of the universe. That has led him to the study of cosmology and general relativity to answer the basic questions, “Where do we come from? / Where are we going?”
Growing up in a suburb outside of Columbus, Ohio, young Daniel came from a family of scientists – his father was a biologist, his grandfather an atomic chemist – and showed early mathematical talent. In sixth grade, his teacher sent him to a computer lab for a month to avoid becoming too bored in his regular math class. By his sophomore year of high school, Daniel was taking AP Chemistry. He loved pondering the things that can make your head hurt, such as the meaning of infinity. By the time he finished high school, he had completed a two-year advanced curriculum in physics, including special relativity.
At the College of William and Mary, Daniel double-majored in physics and French, and designed a vacuum chamber for infrared optics as his senior project. After applying to several graduate schools, he chose UF because of its size, reputation, and an attractive offer of financial support. His first year at UF was occupied taking the core physics curriculum, but then it was time for Daniel to find his own niche. That summer, as part of a self-study class under Professor James Fry, he taught himself the basics of general relativity. That endeavor introduced him to the standard model of cosmology and the problem of Dark Matter. [Briefly, the observed motion of stars around galactic cores cannot be explained by current gravitational theory unless you assume there is a large amount of mass that you can’t see, of a kind that has never been detected.] As Daniel recalls, “I was feeling a bit ornery that day, so I asked Dr. Fry ‘What if I don’t believe in Dark Matter?’” The answer was to go see Professor Richard Woodard, the department’s resident expert on Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), an alternate theory of gravitational force.
Under the guidance of Dr. Woodard, now his dissertation advisor, Daniel Brooker is grappling with the current theories that explain the observed universe. From the Big Bang through Cosmic Inflation, how did the universe end up looking the way it does? Planets, solar systems, galaxies, galaxy groups, clusters, superclusters – the matter of the universe has an interesting granularity in its observed size distribution. Can theory explain that distribution? Not yet, at least not fully, and that’s what Daniel is working on – with the aid of high-powered mathematics and the liberal use of his office blackboard. As Daniel explains it, “Theorists, by themselves, cannot come up with more observations, but they can tweak the theories and push the models until the resulting predictions better match the observations.” In the process, he and we may learn a little better how the universe operates. It may even help eliminate the need for that pesky Dark Matter.
Daniel has certainly found the physics department to be a stimulating environment. As he notes, “The size of the department here at UF and its open, receptive atmosphere really help facilitate the exploration of new ideas. Everyone may be opinionated, but at the end of the day we respect each other.” Access to resources and collaborative opportunities can help, too. Last year, for example, Daniel was able to spend five weeks on a travel grant visiting collaborators in Europe. As to his future plans, after graduation Daniel would like to put his undergraduate French major to good use, perhaps with a postdoc in physics somewhere in France. No doubt he will continue to seek out the truth of our reality and, in the process, pull back the curtain a little further.