Nicole Goes to 69th Nobel Meeting: An Astrophysicists Journey

Looking up at the night skies as a child, Bellville South’s Nicole Thomas always wondered if there was something beyond the stars. This hunger for knowledge led her to become an astrophysicist and landed her an invite to one of the most prestigious scientific meets in the world, the 69th Nobel Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

Every year, the Nobel Meeting is attended by the top minds in the world which include Nobel Prize-winning scientists. As part of their mission to develop young scientists, they invite about 500 of the brightest young minds in the world. These young scientists are chosen from thousands of PhD candidates and post-doctorates by a high-level scientific review panel in all three natural science Nobel Prize disciplines: medicine and physiology, physics, and chemistry.

The PhD student says that she had always loved physics. After matriculating from Kasselsvlei High School in Bellville South, Nicole registered at the University of the Western Cape to do a BSc in Physics. After graduating, she went on to do her honours at the University of Cape Town’s ‘National Astrophysics and Space Science Program’ and returning to UWC, she completed her masters. Being one of the top scientific minds in the country, she managed to get funding from the Square Kilometre Array project to complete her PhD.

For her PhD thesis, she uses ‘state-of-the-art cosmological hydrodynamic simulations’ to understand how supermassive black holes affect galaxies. But what does this mean?

A supermassive black hole is basically a star that died and is at the centre of every galaxy. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains about 200 billion stars, with our sun being one of those stars. The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole is a few billion times heavier than the sun. If any object came into contact with the edge of the black hole, it would tear it apart and suck it in.

To understand how powerful a black hole is, imagine placing on earth, a black hole the size of a 50 cent coin. Not only would that tiny black hole tear our planet to shreds, but it would swallow (or suck in) half of earth and send the rest flying into space.  Don’t worry though. We still have a few billion years left before a black hole swallows us in.

In a nutshell, Nicole, who is also a gifted programmer, uses computers to build replicas of a black hole. She then applies super advanced mathematical models to determine how the black hole affects the formation and growth of the stars and planets surrounding it.

Before we continue, here is another cool fact: Black holes are so powerful, that it even bends time.

Of the Nobel meeting, Nicole says that she is very excited about being able to speak to the best scientists in the world. She also hopes to learn more about the path they travelled to get where they are. “Nicole will interact with some of the top physics minds in the world, and will broaden her horizons to better understand the context of her work,” says UWC Astrophysics Group’s Prof Roy Maartens.

Of Nicole, Prof Maartens says the following:  “She leaves no stone unturned in understanding the material, and doesn’t take shortcuts towards achieving her goals – and she will no doubt leave this meeting even better prepared to make an impact in the field.”

Asked to give advice to aspiring Astrophysicists, Nicole is uneasy about giving it. That is because she understands that everybody has different experiences and thus has different problems to deal with. However, she says that if she were to give advice to a young Nicole, it would be that getting a PhD is hard but the feeling of having achieved something is extremely rewarding. Sometimes you feel like you know what you are doing and then a simple question or problem comes up that just crushes your confidence. However, like all problems, you will figure it out and it is a great feeling to finally grasp something that you did not understand before.

She confesses that when she started with University, she had her entire future planned out but experience has taught her that life is not that clear cut. Sometimes things work out and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to try.  More often than not, your journey lands you on a completely different path, and as will be shown in the next paragraph, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nicole’s winding path has allowed her the privilege of visiting the prestigious Max Planck Society of Research Institutes in Germany, spending a year conducting research for her PhD at Oxford University in the UK, and she is currently doing research at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh (Scotland). She was also part of UWC’s winning team at the International Student Cluster Competition in Frankfurt, Germany. The team designed and built a small supercomputer that was judged to be the best performing supercomputer.

Going forward, she hopes for her path to lead her to the Square Kilometre Array project in the Karoo.  The project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope which will use thousands of satellite dishes and up to a million antennas, allowing scientists to observe the universe in greater detail. Nicole describes it as “the world’s largest scientific experiment”.

Having recently submitted her paper, ‘Black Hole – Galaxy Correlations in Simba’, her immediate goal is to have it published.  She is not impatient however and is completely aware that her path is still being constructed. On this point, Nicole says, “I realize it’s not that easy to just figure out the universe, and I might not find the answers I’m looking for – but I wouldn’t be happy not trying.”

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