Research Highlights

Past and Present Research Stories

Over the years we've done some great research here in the department that you may have been a part of.  Below, we've collected a group of stories detailing many of these projects.  Enjoy.

News and Events

14-year-old Anna Montoya leaned over her circuit board, soldering iron in hand as she carefully fused a maze of wires to the green board. On August 6 junior high and high school–aged girls came together with teachers, parents, and a BYU graduate student to create light using a circuit board.
After being away for four years, Brian Anderson will return to BYU as a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “The students at BYU work hard and have strong morals, which helps make teaching and mentoring them truly enjoyable,” Anderson said. “I’m excited to be free to openly share not only my passion for science but also my religious convictions with students.”
Joshua Bodon is sick of hearing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” More specifically, he’s sick of hearing one 25-second clip of the song repeated more than 550 times. For almost two years, this physics grad student has been testing how sound radiates from live musical instruments, which includes hearing the same song over and over…and over. But the monotony has a purpose; it’s all about helping musicians, instrument makers, concert hall designers, audio engineers and music producers enhance sound quality.
Some people like to count calories, but BYU professor Mark Transtrum took it to a whole new level. Working with BYU chemistry professor Lee Hansen and local scientist Colette Quinn, Transtrum performed research using calorimeters—machines that measure the heat of chemical reactions.
While most kids her age didn’t know what they wanted for dinner, eight-year-old Jeannette Lawler already knew she wanted to be a physicist. “I grew up in the moonshot era,” Lawler said. “I built my own cardboard box Viking Lander to play in as a rug rat.”
Joshua Bodon is sick of hearing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." More specifically, he's sick of hearing one 25-second clip of the song repeated more than 550 times. For almost two years, this physics grad student has been testing how sound radiates from live musical instruments, which includes hearing the same song over and over-and over. But the monotony has a purpose; it's all about helping musicians, instrument makers, concert hall designers, audio engineers and music producers enhance sound quality.
Steven Turley, professor in the BYU Department of Physics and Astronomy, has succeeded in turning his curiosity of the world into a career. “I really like figuring out how to make things work,” Turley said. “I’ve been intensely curious about how things work ever since I was quite young, and it never got beat out of me as I went through school.”
Studying magnetic behaviors on a microscopic scale can make a gigantic impact on modern science. Physics professor Karine Chesnel does research on the magnetic properties of nanoparticles. “We are studying the magnetic behavior of magnetic materials at a very small scale.” Chesnel said. “We are trying to understand where their magnetism is coming from.”
The Eyring Science Center exploded with life as people of all ages made star charts, rock climbed, slid down blow-up slides, built rockets and paper airplanes, and viewed countless exciting demonstrations at Astrofest on Saturday, May 16.
BYU’s Eyring Science Center transforms into a space exploration center featuring launching rockets, flames, and explosions at Astrofest. Astrofest will be held on Saturday, May 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in and around the Eyring Science Center on BYU’s campus. Families and guests of all ages from the community are invited to participate in the free activities.
BYU is gaining national recognition for producing more physics teachers than other colleges. In 2014, BYU had 17 physics teaching graduates, which is more than double the number at any other university in the country. BYU has also consistently outpaced other schools in this area for at least the past ten years. The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) has recognized these numbers and awarded BYU a spot in its 5+ Club, which has 11 members this year.
From an underground lab on campus, an undergraduate student discovered how to harvest more energy from sunlight. Stephen Erickson and fellow student Trevor Smith conducted and published research about how nano-sized crystals can improve solar panels. Their lab experiments suggest that solar cells based on nanocrystals of titanium, iron, cobalt and manganese could achieve up to 38 percent solar energy conversion.
If you want to see just how far BYU’s latest research extends, step outside of your house tonight, look up towards the sky, focus your view between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra, and then zoom in about 100 million light years. That’s the home of a galaxy known as KA 1858, which contains a black hole that BYU scientists observed with the help of NASA and other astrophysicists throughout the University of California system.
With the lights off, they can’t see the ASL interpreter who narrates their tour of outer space. With the lights on, they can’t see the constellations of stars projected overhead. That’s why a group at Brigham Young University launched the “Signglasses” project. Professor Mike Jones and his students have developed a system to project the sign language narration onto several types of glasses – including Google Glass.
The ability to transfer a gene or DNA sequence from one animal into the genome of another plays a critical role in the medical research of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. But the traditional method of transferring genetic material into a new cell, microinjection, has a serious downside. This method uses a hollow needle to pump a DNA-filled liquid into an egg cell nucleus, but that extra fluid causes the cell to swell and die 40 percent of the time. Now a multidisciplinary team of Brigham Young University scientists has developed a way to significantly reduce cell death when introducing DNA into egg cells. The researchers have created a microscopic lance that delivers DNA to the cells through electrical forces.
A new professor at Brigham Young University saw his research appear last month in Science magazine, one of the top scientific journals in the world. BYU physics professor Mark Transtrum and researchers at Cornell present a theory about why scientific theories work despite generally ‘sloppy’ components in scientific models. “Nobody argues that science hasn’t been successful at describing the physical world, but it’s actually far more successful than it has any right to be,” Transtrum said. “We’re explaining why that is.”
Football fans attending BYU home games the last two seasons may have noticed a few students roving through the crowd, giving their full attention to hand-held scientific instruments instead of the game. They were physics students, and they were doing homework that fans heading to Saturday’s game against Texas will want to read.
cupid made from carbon nanotubes by Brigham Young University physics students. You don’t have to be a science lover to be amazed at how they build on such a small scale. First, they put a pattern of microscopic iron “seeds” onto a plate. A blast of heated gas causes a miniature forest of carbon nanotubes to spring up. Each nanotube measures about 20 atoms across and is 99 percent air.
Most people don’t wear a Superman logo to work under their shirt and tie. Most people also don’t shoot themselves with a Ping-Pong ball going over 500 miles per hour. Apparently BYU physics professor Harold Stokes is not like most people.
Whether on their own or orbiting as a pair, black holes don’t typically sit still. Not only do they spin, they can also move laterally across their host galaxy. And according to astrophysicists at Brigham Young University, both types of movement power massive jets of energy known as quasars. The study, which appears in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to compute what may fuel some of the brightest persistent lights in the universe.
Earplugs are a must if physics professor Kent Gee is your research mentor. Back in the day, Gee was himself a physics major at BYU working alongside Professor Scott Sommerfeldt, whose research focuses on how to fight noise with noise. The valuable experience started him on the path toward grad school and a spot on the BYU faculty, and now he’s making his own noise with undergrads. The projects range from NASA rockets to Air Force weaponry to gongs made in Bali.
A Brigham Young University physics student and his professor had some fun with their new method of growing tiny machines from carbon molecules. We’ve seen some creative ways of making tiny BYU logos before, like engraving these nano-sized letters in silica and shaping these even smaller letters from DNA strands. But growing a nano-logo? That’s probably a first on campus.
What do you see in these gassy remnants of an exploded star? A bird? A plane? A witch? Astronomers Mike Joner and David Laney at BYU’s West Mountain Observatory have been busy using Utah’s largest optical telescope to capture images of the ghostly shell of gases from a massive star that blew up thousands of years ago.
Though it began as a science fair project involving a shiny Brazilian beetle, Lauren Richey’s research may advance the pursuit of ultra-fast computers that manipulate light rather than electricity. While still at Springville High School, Lauren approached Brigham Young University professor John Gardner about using his scanning electron microscope to look at the beetle known as Lamprocyphus augustus. When Lauren and Professor Gardner examined the scales, they noticed something unusual for iridescent surfaces: They reflected the same shade of green at every angle. The reason? Each beetle scale contained a crystal with a honeycomb-like interior that had the same structural arrangement as carbon atoms in a diamond.
Harvey Fletcher will be honored during Brigham Young University's Homecoming 2010 as its Founder, and the theme, "Dare to Discover," reflects his approach to physics as well as his deep religious convictions. The Provo native was a man of many firsts. He was the first physics student to be given highest honors at the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate. He was the first member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be elected to the National Academy of Science. He was the first member of the 8,000 staff Bell Telephone Laboratories elected president of the American Physical Society; the first president and co-organizer of the Acoustical Society of America; co-organizer of the American Institute of Physics; and was the first to introduce a group audiometer into the school room, which launched a national program of testing school children.
Provo, Utah – Two BYU researchers combined their specialties of astronomy and ancient philosophy to connect an ancient Greek report of a comet in 466 B.C. with complex astronomical calculations that show it was likely the famous Halley’s comet. The research pushes back the earliest recorded sighting of Halley’s comet more than 200 years. Daniel W. Graham, professor of philosophy, and Eric Hintz, professor of physics and astronomy, published their article in the Journal of Cosmology.
Gus Hart, a professor of physics in Brigham Young University’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, was recently named an American Competitiveness and Innovation Fellow by the National Science Foundation. The award will help fund Hart’s research efforts, providing $600,000 over a five-year span. Hart received the award primarily for his international research collaborations and his work with student assistants from underrepresented gender and ethnic groups.
Scott D. Sommerfeldt, dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at Brigham Young University, has been elected a member of the Executive Council of the Acoustical Society of America. His three-year term began in May 2009. “My interactions with others in the ASA have led to numerous research ideas that have formed the basis for my research career,” said Sommerfeldt. “I am honored to join the executive council and look forward to trying to give back to the Society.”
Thirty-seven miles apart, twin stars orbit each other on a high-speed collision course. In a matter of milliseconds, the stars collide in spectacular fashion, spewing out radiation and forming an object so massive it collapses under its own weight and becomes a black hole.
Using the structure of DNA as electrical circuitry in computer chips may shrink the costs of production in the field of nano-electronics. In a new study published in Chemistry of Materials, a team of Brigham Young University scientists introduces a method for making tiny wires on an insulating surface and connecting them at pre-determined points on a strand of DNA.
The newly named Royden G. Derrick Planetarium at Brigham Young University’s Eyring Science Center will be an effective tool in helping students to appreciate “the numberless works of our Father in Heaven and His infinite capacity to bless His children,” said Elder Richard G. Scott, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the facility’s dedication on Friday (Sept. 28).
Historically, coin collectors used crude methods of testing the authenticity of coins, such as biting into them, to see if they were really made of genuine gold or silver. For experts, this method has proven to be archaic. Luckily, coin collectors can spare the bite. A Brigham Young University student has demonstrated a way to test counterfeit coins using an X-ray machine. Physics student Jeff Brown developed the new method of testing the authenticity of collectible coins for his senior thesis by using an X-ray machine and electron microscope. Brown began working on his project two years ago. He is one of 2,513 students who will graduate from BYU this week. Commencement exercises will be held Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Marriott Center.
Why are BYU professors and scientists from around the nation gathering to discuss yodeling, crackling and hearing? Scientists will be gathering to present and discuss their latest acoustics research at the Acoustical Society of America’s 153rd meeting. The conference will take place at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center June 4-8. More than 650 papers will be presented, 10 with ties to Brigham Young University.
A group of BYU students will compete this weekend with their prototype of the next generation of Mars rovers – the kind designed to support human expeditions to our neighboring planet. The Mars Society is hosting the first-ever “University Rover Challenge” June 1 -2 at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. The BYU rover will go up against vehicles from Penn State, UCLA, Nevada–Reno and Ferris State.
William J. Strong, Brigham Young University emeritus professor of physics, was recently awarded the Rossing Prize in Acoustics Education from the Acoustical Society of America. The award will be presented June 6 at a society meeting in Salt Lake City.
At a seminal meeting in 1987, physicists shocked the scientific community when they reported that certain ceramics can conduct electricity with no resistance at low temperatures. Since then, scientists have been dreaming of trains that levitate on magnetic fields, practical electric cars, hyper-efficient power lines and the other technological marvels that would be made possible by a material that could similarly “superconduct” electricity, but at room temperature. Near the 20-year anniversary of that scientific symposium, called “the Woodstock of physics” in contemporary media accounts, a Brigham Young University researcher is part of a team that has taken science one step closer to this “holy grail.” Branton Campbell, assistant professor of physics, in collaboration with the University of Tennessee's Pengcheng Daiand others, has published a paper (subscription required) in the high-profile journal Nature Materials that explains the behavior of an important class of superconducting ceramics.
Talk about the ride of a lifetime. Free-falling over the Gulf of Mexico in the belly of NASA's "Vomit Comet" aircraft – so named because it can make researchers onboard sick – Brigham Young University students recently got a feel for what it's like to spacewalk (click for video) as they conducted a physics experiment in zero gravity.
One and a half years after a mirror created by Brigham Young University students left Earth onboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, a second mirror – this one on the Venus Express – will be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
With a specialized 3-D projector and state-of-the-art acoustics, the completely rebuilt Brigham Young University planetarium was unveiled by physics and astronomy department officials in March.
Robert Clark, a professor of physics and astronomy at Brigham Young University, recently received a prestigious national teaching award from the American Association of Physics Teachers. Clark was awarded the Melba Newell Phillips Award at a conference in Miami Beach, Fla., in January. The award is given only occasionally to association leaders who display a unique life of creative leadership, dedicated service and exceptional contributions.
How would it be to update a critical spreadsheet or type an urgent memo in silence, minus the distraction from cooling fan noise coming from your computer, copy machine and desktop printer? In an effort to make a more desirable workplace where people can concentrate better, Brigham Young University physics professor Scott Sommerfeldt has created a noise suppression system that can reduce the whirl of office equipment cooling fans to a soft whisper.
Brigham Young University students under the direction of physics professor David D. Allred have been asked by the Mars Society to maintain its Mars Desert Research Station. The cramped, two-story habitat in the desert of Southern Utah is part of an effort to prepare humans for exploration and possible settlement of the red planet. Students only leave the station dressed in custom-made space suits to better simulate the experience.
A Brigham Young University professor of physics and astronomy has been appointed as the George and Caroline Arfken Physics Scholar-in-Residence at Miami University (Ohio). Bill Evenson received the honor for his extensive research in nanoparticle physics and nuclear condensed-matter physics, which is the study of matter using nuclear interactions.
Liz Finlayson, who is graduating from the Physics Teaching program, was recently highlighted in the APS Spring 2020 newsletter
New telescope installed in the campus dome on February 22, 2020
A new study from researchers at Brigham Young University and Pennsylvania State University provides the most accurate estimate of the number of Earth-like planets in the universe. The team looked at the frequency of planets that are similar to Earth in size and in distance from their host star, stars similar to our Sun. Knowing the rate that these potentially habitable planets occur will be important for designing future astronomical missions to characterize nearby rocky planets around Sun-like stars that could support life.
Students of the Physics 106 afternoon section participated in an extra credit opportunity that took hands-on learning to a new level. Inspired by a classic MIT challenge, Professor Della Corte gave each student a small kit containing two thumb tacks, two paper clips, six feet of copper wire, two neodymium magnets, and a block of wood. He then sent his students on their way with limited instructions: Design your own motors, only using materials from the kits. Any drop of glue or strip of tape would disqualify them.
Airplane toilets are loud. For some, they are downright terrifying. But chin up, frequent flyers, because a group of BYU physicists have figured out how to make them quieter. After two years of trial and error, three academic publications and thousands of flushes, the BYU researchers have invented a vacuum-assisted toilet that is about half as loud as the regular airplane commode.
Addressing a national shortage of high school physics teachers is crucial to improving physics education in the United States. The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), a partnership of APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers, aims to improve the education of future physics teachers by transforming physics departments, creating successful models for physics teacher education programs, and disseminating best practices.
In the original Star Wars film, R2D2 projects an image of Princess Leia in distress. The iconic scene includes the line still famous 40 years later: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” BYU electrical and computer engineering professor and holography expert Daniel Smalley has long had a goal to create the same type of 3D image projection. In a paper published this week in Nature, Smalley details the method he has developed to do so.
Cougar Queries is a series profiling BYU employees by asking them a few simple questions about their work, interests and life. Today we meet Denise Stephens, professor of Astronomy.
Dallin Squires was recognized as BYU's student employee of the year for his work in the Physics and Astronomy Lab. Squires helps the lab with research projects, equipment maintenance, and has even designed a tornado demonstration for the Eyring Science Center lobby. "You can't look at Dallin without seeing the wheels spinning in his head; he is always thinking about ways to improve a research project or contemplating how to be a better person," said Physics and Astronomy Lab Director Jeremy Peterson.
In December 2016, what appears on digital telescopic images to be a star among stars became around 250 times brighter than usual. Nearly 8 billion light years away, CTA 102 is a supermassive black hole surrounded by a disc of swirling matter and jets of material shooting away from it (collectively known as a blazar). And when it brightened, astronomers took note.
It may not be as catchy as chains and weak links, but physicists and engineers know “a material is only as strong as its weakest grain boundary.” OK, that’s not catchy at all, but here’s the point: grain boundaries are a big deal. They are the microscopic, disordered regions where atom-sized building blocks bind the crystals (i.e. grains) together in materials.
It’s hot. Seriously hot. Not creeping-into-the-90s-crank-up-the-AC hot: nearly-8,000-degrees-Fahrenheit hot. KELT-9b is an exoplanet, but its dayside temp beats most stars in our galaxy — and comes close to our sun’s 10,000 degrees. A paper announcing 9b’s discovery, published this week in top science journal Nature, highlights some of the extreme characteristics of both the planet and its host star, KELT-9.
Teaching has always had a huge impact on BYU physics professor Duane Merrell—an impact that has both affected his life and guided his career and passion for teaching physics.
A crowd of 29 stands still, positioned as lookouts in various directions. A chirp punctuates the silence before being replaced by a distinct buzz. The buzzing grows louder, then abruptly drops back into silence. Twenty-eight Lego figurines shift slightly — they survive. But one unlucky companion lies on his back, toppled by an invisible force.
Clement Gaillard spent three or four nights a week operating BYU’s Orson Pratt Observatory telescope in the summer of 2015. On the night of June 23, the physics undergrad pointed the telescope toward a star more than a thousand light years away, recording meticulous data and hoping. Soon after, physics professor Denise Stephens and a visiting student reduced the data and looked anxiously at the plot points they had gathered. On a six-hour timeline, the dots congregated along a straight line for two hours, dipped down for two, then popped back up through the end.
Sunshine matters. A lot. The idea isn’t exactly new, but according to a recent BYU study, when it comes to your mental and emotional health, the amount of time between sunrise and sunset is the weather variable that matters most.
Dr. Tracianne Neilsen has spent many years trying to find a balance between family, mentoring students in acoustics, and teaching physics. After 12 years at BYU, Neilsen received the BYU Adjunct Faculty Excellence Award at the Annual University Conference in recognition for her outstanding contribution to the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the University. The award is given to a part-time faculty member who has demonstrated excellence in teaching or in other professional responsibilities over a period of at least five years.
Every college professor is part of a professional community. According to BYU physics professor Dr. Justin Peatross, peer reviewing is one way to give back to that community. Every year, the American Physical Society (APS) selects a handful of exceptional peer reviewers to receive the Outstanding Referee Award. From a pool of roughly 60,000 currently active reviewers for APS journals, Dr. Peatross was one of 146 physicists to receive the award.
BYU once again received The PhysTEC 5+ Club Award. The award is reserved for U.S. colleges that graduate five or more certified physics teachers in a year. Only nine schools received the award this year, with BYU leading the pack.
On May 31 and June 7, 2016, girls age nine through sixteen came to BYU to discover physics. For the past four years, BYU Physics professor Dallin Durfee has brought physics to life and “light” for these students through a program called BYU Girls and Light (GALs).
Treasure needs a map, vehicles need a manual, and, as it turns out, interstellar discoveries need a guidebook. New research in Astrophysical Journal is acting as that guidebook to aid in the discovery of interstellar comets—comets from other solar systems. These “alien comets” are theorized to exist, but no one has actually found one yet. Observing them will uniquely help in understanding how planets are produced throughout the universe.
Dr. Karine Chesnel has always been fascinated with understanding how things work, particularly the secrets of magnetism. “There are still a lot of unknown mysteries in magnetism,” Chesnel said. “Scientists are still trying to understand the nature of magnetism, the origin of magnetism and what’s causing it.”
For Brother Guy Consolmagno, science and religion have always been intertwined, and to separate them would be to deny God’s creations. Consolmagno, who is a planetary scientist and the director of the Vatican Observatory, spoke at this year’s Summerhays Lecture at the Joseph Smith Building on March 10, 2016.
Throughout his life, Dr. Harvey Fletcher boosted BYU’s reputation through an array of impressive accomplishments. Fletcher, BYU’s first ever physics graduate, will bring recognition to his alma mater once more this spring by winning a Grammy Award.
Jean-François Van Huele of the Department of Physics and Astronomy is the recipient of the 2015 Academy Fellow Award from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters (UASAL). UASAL past president Erin O’Brien of Dixie State University presented Van Huele the award at their annual awards night on Friday, November 13, 2015.
These days, almost nothing lasts ten years before becoming obsolete, but the advice of two BYU physics professors has stood the test of time. Justin Peatross and Michael Ware of the Department of Physics and Astronomy recently had their advice published in the SPS Observer magazine. The article, titled “Research Communication 101: Six tips for communicating your research project outside the lab,” talks about how to present ideas as a physicist, both in written form and in presentations.
“Physics” and “easier to understand” aren’t phrases that ordinarily appear together, but that’s what BYU alumnus Derek Hullinger is trying to accomplish. “I love to make things better,” Hullinger said. “I like saying, ‘We could make that just a little bit faster by doing this,’ or ‘We could make it a little bit easier to understand by doing this.’”
It’s all about the students for Kent Gee, BYU professor and most recent winner of the Lawrence K. Egbert Teaching and Learning Fellowship. “At the end of the day, the only reason you can receive an award like this is because of the students,” Gee said.