11 April 2008

What do exploding stars, gender equality and Ultimate Frisbee have in common? Usually not much, unless you are Dr Tamara Davis.

The University of Queensland researcher is a new addition to the School of Physical Sciences, where she is using her knowledge of galaxies and supernovae to study the expansion of the Universe.

Dr Davis came to UQ in February after a two-year stint at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, to work on a project called WiggleZ.

Rather than studying four skivvy-wearing children’s entertainers, Dr Davis will be examining the “bumps and wiggles” in the pattern of galaxies we see in the sky and using the findings to measure how quickly the Universe is expanding.

Her project tries to measure the mysterious dark energy that seems to be causing the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Dr Davis said dark energy, jokingly known as “the dark side of the Force”, was a relatively new discovery in astrophysics that cosmologists were still struggling to understand.

The idea that the Universe’s expansion is accelerating seems to fly in the face of everything physicists thought they knew about gravity.

“It’s as though a ball thrown in the air has accelerated into space instead of falling back to Earth,” Dr Davis said.

“It may mean that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity needs revision, or that the Universe is filled with some sort of substance with anti-gravity.”

Dr Davis and the astrophysics team at UQ are trying to figure out which.

While these concepts seem far beyond the realms of everyday, Earth-bound life, Dr Davis said her projects potentially had very practical results.

“We’re trying to get down to the nuts and bolts of how the Universe works. At this moment we have no idea how the findings will be relevant to life on Earth but past examples of discoveries like this have resulted in unforseen applications like electricity and nuclear power,” she said.

“We’ve got the Universe accelerating without any currently identified energy source, so maybe in the future we will be able to harness this as some sort of green energy to benefit humankind.

“I think the possibility of a clean source of fuel is one of the things that makes this kind of fundamental research worth doing.”

While women are increasingly well represented in many areas of academia, Dr Davis said astrophysics was still a male-dominated field, with just 15% of researchers being female.

“I had been working in the field for about four years and published with about 40 different authors before I published with another female,” she said.

But Dr Davis said her male colleagues have never made her feel “anything but welcome” and she was drawn to astrophysics from her first forays into university study.

“Doing physics gave me the most options, it was a nice, flexible degree,” she said.

“Each step of the way it was the most interesting thing to do so I kept doing it.”

When she’s not unlocking the secrets of the Universe, Dr Davis plays Ultimate Frisbee, a non-contact team sport played with a flying disc.

She represented Australia in the sport at the World Championships in Germany in 2000 and Finland in 2004.

Media: Dr Davis (07 3346 7952) or Tegan Taylor at UQ Communications (07 3365 2659).