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Norbert Werner

Werner: Instead of reading fairy tales, my dad showed me astronauts on the Moon

The astrophysicist Norbert Werner has been recently awarded a unique grant by Masaryk University – MUNI Award in Science and Humanities.

Norbert Werner is an expert on the behaviour of black holes or intergalactic gas, and, among other things, wishes to work with companies developing small satellites during his stay in Brno.

Norbert Werner (1981)

He is currently working at Eötvös Loránd University, where he came after spending eight years at Stanford University, the United States. He also lectures in Hiroshima, Japan, and Masaryk University, where he will soon be moving with his research.

Why did you pursue the MUNI Award grant?
It’s an excellent and very flexible project framework. Research cannot be planned in detail far in advance – that’s not how research works. Something completely unexpected can come up and you need to change plans, which is exactly what the Masaryk University grant makes possible. In addition, the grant allows devoting most of the time to research and not to administration.

What are you going to do here at Masaryk University?
I want to focus on high-energy astrophysics, which is a field exploring places in the Universe that are the hottest and have the most energy – mainly intergalactic gas in galaxy clusters. Only about ten percent of normal mass in the Universe is found in stars and planets. The rest is intergalactic gas, which, when it hits the gravitational field of galaxy clusters, heats up to such a degree that it starts emitting X-rays. And it is this particular radiation that we focus on, which allows us to examine not only the properties intergalactic gas, but also the behaviour of black holes in the centres of galaxies –black holes interact with the gas, thus playing a vital part in the evolution of galaxies.

This is because they keep the intergalactic gas hot, therefore preventing the formation of new stars. When they absorb the matter surrounding them, a huge amount of energy is created in their surroundings, which is then released either in the form of light, which is the case of the so-called quasars, or in the form of jets, which heat the surrounding gas creating bubbles and lobes. These jets consist of particles moving at speeds approaching the speed of light and emit radio waves which we can also observe.

It was precisely the discovery of one such cavity in intergalactic gas that has led to the description of the largest eruption in the universe so far. You have been the first to note the traces of the eruption, but a different group confirmed it conclusively. Is this common?
A few years ago, I discovered a cavity in the intergalactic gas in the X-ray images of the galaxy known as WISEA J171227.81–232210.7, which is in the constellation Ophiuchus and is 390 million light years from Earth. I believed that the cavity was the result of a massive blast of energy from a black hole, but the eruption was so enormous that it simply seemed unlikely and as a result I abandoned this theory. However, my NASA colleagues have found evidence that it indeed is the result of a huge burst of energy from a black hole. In fact, they told me about it two years ago, but to make these kinds of claims you need to have truly extraordinary and well-founded evidence, and it was only earlier this year that such evidence was published.

What do you truly enjoy about researching black holes and galaxy clusters?
When I was a child observing the Milky Way and the starred sky, I felt that I was looking into infinity and wondered how the universe is arranged and how it would look like on the largest scales. Then I learned that the stars are part of galaxies and one such galaxy can have about 400 billion of these stars and that there are one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe alone, which are not distributed evenly in it but instead form a cobweb-like structure… That is why it fascinates me.

You became interested in astronomy as a child. What made you interested in it?
I am from Rožňava, Slovakia, and it had a public observatory. What is more, both my father and grandfather had been interested in astronomy and when I was little, my dad showed me a brochure on the Moon landing. It contained photos of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, how they walked the Moon, and also a picture of the city which was supposed to be built there by the year 2000, and I really liked looking at it all. When I was about four, my father took me to the observatory to watch the lunar eclipse, and there I saw all those craters I knew from the pictures. In fifth grade I first read about the Big Bang theory and I was amazed. Afterwards, when I was telling our form teacher about space shuttles, she told me that I should study at a mathematics and physics faculty and become an astrophysicist. Since then, I knew exactly what I want to do.

The well-known astrophysicist Jiří Grygar was also an inspiration for you.
Yes, he used to give lectures in Rožňava and after one such lecture, I asked him if he could read my research thesis that I did for SOČ (secondary-school research work). He was very forthcoming and eventually ended up being my consultant. He spent a lot of time emailing me, answered my questions, and read my work, which in turn motivated me. The way he was able to popularize astronomy is inspiring me even today to make this field more popular to others and to pass on all his knowledge that I received from him.

n a clean room of the Japanese Space Agency. Norbert Werner holds a segment of a satellite X-ray mirror.

You went to Košice to study and you did your doctorate in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where you managed to get by arranging the whole Erasmus yourself. How did that happen?
Already in my first year in Košice I came across the possibility to participate in an Erasmus exchange programme, but it turned out that our university did not sign any bilateral agreements, and therefore it was not possible to participate in the programme. However, thanks to international astronomy camps I met a person who had a friend in Utrecht, and he helped us secure the agreement. I managed to travel there for three months during my fourth year of studies, and when they had been looking for a doctoral student, they contacted me and I took up their offer.

The position in Utrecht was focused on researching galaxy clusters – the largest objects in the universe. Was that the area which attracted you the most?
I thought I would conduct research on asteroids, comets, or planets. I was also quite fascinated by the rovers for researching Mars and other things related to the solar system. I dreamed of studying at Cornell University, the United States, which was the workplace of the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, but the offer from Utrecht came before I could even submit my application to Cornell.

Eventually you did go to the United States – you were at Stanford University thanks to a grant from the American space agency NASA. Was obtaining it difficult?
Every year NASA is searching for scientists for various programmes and I applied for a grant connected to the Chandra mission and observatory. Chandra X-ray Observatory, located on Earth’s orbit, detects X-ray emission from space, which is exactly the one we use for observing galaxy clusters and intergalactic gas. I was incredibly lucky to obtain the grant, as they only chose five people out of 150 candidates. The three-year grant allowed you to work at any place in the USA and I chose Stanford. Eventually, I ended up staying there for eight years.

You told me that you not only felt at home there, but also had the opportunity to stay in the United States. However, four years ago you returned to Central Europe. Why?
I had been mulling this over for a long time. But even as a university student I knew that while I wanted to work abroad, I would like to eventually return home and help get our science to the level that brought me to the USA and NASA.

In Brno, you would like to establish a cooperation with technology companies. What is the driving force behind this goal?
My research is based on the data from space observatories, and one of these is currently being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) under the name Athena. I am on the Science Working Group of this satellite, which should be launched no sooner than in ten years, and it is in Brno where a part of it is being developed.

However, that is not the only thing that connects Brno and space research. While building large space observatories is very time-consuming and costly, technological development and miniaturization have progressed to a point where we can begin developing small satellites the size of shoebox or smaller which are also capable of scientific breakthroughs. There are a few companies being established in Brno that want to be or already are devoted to this, and I think that Brno could be the hub of these technologies. I believe that these small satellites are able to effectively complement the work of large observatories and bring in a huge amount of new and more diverse data, which could significantly advance the whole field.

What are your visions of the future of astrophysics?
In my vision of the future I see each institute of astronomy having their own efficient laboratory on a nanosatellite in space. And I believe that we in Brno could be among the first to achieve that.

My dream is a mission that could map all the matter in the universe – most of it is hidden among galaxy clusters and the density of this gas is so low that it emits very few X-rays, which is why it is so difficult to observe. If we were to succeed, we would be much closer to understanding the evolution of the universe than we are now. We have recently submitted a proposal for such an ambitious mission to the European Space Agency, and if it ever takes place, it will be in more than 20 years. You see, when you’re researching the universe, you’re in it for the long haul.