• Victoria Blackmon

Cosmic Bodies and an Academic Future

Updated: Oct 10

My passion for space and the cosmos began during my formative years as I spent many evenings with my father discussing alien conspiracies and life on other planets while watching Sci-Fi shows and movies before bedtime. For Christmas at age 9, I received a science kit containing a beginner telescope and full beginner microscope set. This began my first hands-on engagements with scientific instruments. After taking more to the telescope, my parents invested in a larger, more advanced, Galileo Telescope for more intermediate observation. My dad and I spent countless nights in our backyard trying to focus our telescope on bright star clusters, the moon, and anything else we might have been able to see through our eyepieces. It was the most fun I'd had with anything science-related and my parents nurtured that excitement and curiosity in me throughout my youth.

(Credit: WikiCommons)

Over the course of the next 2 years, I spent summers enrolled in a Math tutoring program owned and run by a Mathematician and his Nuclear Engineer brother who had previously worked and completed numerous efforts for NASA. Dr. Rube Williams saw my curiosity regarding Spirit and Opportunity, the new space rovers at the time, and we quickly turned my tutoring time into space-related research meetings. We discussed Mars, its craters, and potential life on the planet and after each meeting he would send me home with questions to research and answer for the next session. By the middle of my senior year of high school, during undergraduate application season, I had known for about 4 years that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, and this dream manifested into what is now my reality and the focus of my educational career. When I first began my degree in astrophysics at my alma mater institution, I was unaware of exactly what kinds of experiences I would face on that journey. However, throughout that 4-year period of my undergraduate career, I learned much about being a scientist by my own definition. To be a scientist, in my book, is simply to be someone who seeks to fuel their inquisition and curiosity, researches or works on projects that fill them with intrigue and wonder, and finds joy and appreciation for those projects while continuing to learn, even during the hardships and obstacles they may face along the way. Astronomy fulfilled that for me and when I began my undergraduate education I reached out to a professor in my department, Dr. Tom Maccarone, whose research focus was primarily in high-energy astrophysics and I began my first research project on black holes. Immediately my interest was piqued and, 4.5 years later, the rest is history.

The project was based on stellar-mass black holes in x-ray binary systems. To simplify this concept, there exists certain cosmic pairs which appear to emit X-rays. These x-ray emitting pairs, or x-ray binary stars, are typically composed of a donor star and a collapsed star (compact object). Black hole X-ray binaries, in particular, are paired-star systems in which matter from the donor star is drawn in by the gravitational field of the present black hole by accretion (the mechanism that pulls gas and materials into the black hole's gravitational field). Since the black hole is of a higher density than its donor star and produces a greater gravitational pull, the gas accreted forms a disk around the black hole and its temperature increases until Hydrogen within the center of this disk becomes ionized (the Hydrogen atom loses and electron and becomes positively charged). The ionization of this Hydrogen produces an X-ray outburst.

A black hole drawing in (accreting) gaseous material from a nearby star. (Credit: NASA, CXC, M. Weiss)
Dramatization of black hole accretion (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

In using previously recorded data from a black hole database, BlackCAT, on a small sample of these black hole binary systems, we sought to draw a mathematical relationship between the peak optical luminosity (radiated power from light-emitting objects) and orbital period (time for one object to completely orbit another) based on this set of data. Our overarching goal was to determine how close our analysis would be when compared to theory. In fact, our relationship was extremely close to that predicted by our theoretical model and thus our project was generally complete, though we conducted further analysis on individual data points and discussed the various implications of our result. This project truly opened my eyes to the reality that research in the field can truly extend as far as you choose to take it! It fascinated me immensely and my advisor became a mentor I am so fortunate and grateful to have met.

Now, as I prepare to begin my Ph.D. this Fall, I felt that it would be best to expand my research horizons and delve into pulsars – a topic of research that I was quickly captivated by but merely scratched the surface of during my undergraduate career. My interest in pulsars developed in my first upper-level Astrophysics course in which I delivered a presentation on the topic, covering both radio and x-ray pulsar structure & behavior and the future of x-ray pulsars for space-navigation. Pulsars became a topic I found absolutely fascinating while researching information for that class presentation and that, in conjunction with their similarities to black holes, fueled my desire to learn more about these cosmic bodies.

My artistic representation of a pulsar (Credit: Astrometaprints)

Pulsars are pulsating neutron stars: The result of massive stars that collapse down, via supernovae explosions, into compact stars with masses of about 1.4 solar masses.

These stars emit beams of electromagnetic radiation and when the stars' magnetic field poles are out of alignment with their rotational axes these beams sweep past us on Earth and are detected in periodic pulses. Pulsars are some of the most dense objects in space (next to black holes!) making them the most useful cosmic bodies for strengthening our understanding of black hole density. I'm particularly interested in exploring pulsar-timing for gravitational wave detection in regard to my graduate research and hope to go more in-depth with this topic in the upcoming Fall semester.

Pulsar sweeping behavior (Credit: Source unknown)
Diagram of pulsar mechanisms (Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

On a less research-based end, my passion for astronomy and astrophysics has led to the creation of my own personal project and hobby, "The Astrophysical & The Metaphysical". For quite a while I have considered how astrophysics can be tied to various aspects of humanity (e.g. our thoughts, health, emotions, and existence in general) and in this project my goal is to bring a scientific perspective to our everyday lives. Since we are all energetic beings, our feelings can very easily affect our life experiences and the energy which we exude in all areas of our lives. For example, negative thoughts and high stress might contribute to what one may consider to be an overall "bad day". If persistent, those same thoughts and feelings can actually contribute to certain less-than-desired health conditions. I am exploring all these ideas objectively and hope to learn more about how metaphysics and astrophysics are intertwined. All of this will be documented in blog posts on my website www.astro-meta.com where I will also write about milestones throughout my Ph.D journey to hopefully give future graduate students a bird's-eye view into my experience!

As far as my research is concerned, though I have enjoyed studying black holes for 4 years, I am optimistic that pulsar research is the next area I'll enjoy deep-diving into throughout my Ph.D. and I look forward to embarking on this new journey in graduate school. My inquisitive nature prevails and I am filled with excitement to go where my graduate experience and "The Astrophysical & The Metaphysical" take me.

(Credit: Neal Herbert, Wikimedia Commons)

Victoria Blackmon holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics with a double minor in Mathematics & French Language from Texas Tech University and is currently a doctoral student in the West Virginia University Department of Physics & Astronomy.

You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website for more information.

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