Extreme Gravity

Scientists have spent centuries studying matter and energy to uncover the fundamental laws of physics. Now, an international team of researchers led by scientists from the University of Leicester is trying to find out whether those laws hold true in environments far different from that of Earth.

The team’s research is focused on the dense, hot conditions produced within the atmosphere of a dying white dwarf star and whether the same laws of physics we’ve established on Earth apply in that environment. These stars have similar radii to Earth, yet their masses are about half that of our Sun, and this compression causes extreme atmospheric gravity.

“These particular stars contain metals, such as iron and nickel, floating within the surface layers of their atmospheres,” explained Dr. Nicole Reindl, who is leading the observations, in a university press release. “The light generated within the depths of the star passes through the heavy metals, leaving behind a ‘fingerprint’ in the stars’ light that we can study.”

The team will use the Hubble Space Telescope for their observations. As light passes through the heavy metals, they will note the tiny differences in the wavelengths of that light compared to Earth experiments.

“Studying these fingerprints in detail requires very precise measurements of the wavelength, or color, of the light emerging from the atmospheres of these stars,” Dr. Matthew Bainbridge added. “The project is ongoing, but we have established a sophisticated new method and have demonstrated how successful it is on nine stars.”

Universal Laws

Right now, studying matter and energy is easiest here on Earth, but the ultimate goal of physics is to understand how the universe behaves. Before we can say something is true, we need to know it is true everywhere.

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This research is an important step along that path. Comparing these observations of a dwarf star with our understanding of Earth could yield valuable hints about possible differences in the fundamental laws of physics under Earth-like and extreme gravity conditions, and those hints could have far-reaching implications.

“This new work will test our understanding of how the universe works, particularly outside the relatively narrow confines of our planet,” noted project leader Professor Martin Barstow. “We anticipate that our results will challenge current theoretical ideas in cosmology.”

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