Long, long ago and far, far away: quasars

Paola Rodríguez Hidalgo / Marc Studer photo

As recently as 100 years ago, people believed our galaxy was the entire universe. Then astronomers realized there were other galaxies farther away. Beyond that, they spotted quasi-stellar objects, or quasars. These supermassive black holes with billions of times the mass of our sun are really far away — from the early universe.

“Suddenly the universe got much, much bigger,” said Paola Rodriguez Hidalgo, an assistant professor who teaches astronomy, physics and cosmology in UW Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Rodriguez Hidalgo also researches the light from quasars to address questions such as: Why are we here? How did we get here? Where are we going?“I think in some sense scientists, and astronomers in particular, have become the new philosophers.”

From the classroom to the taproom

Introducing UW Bothell students to the subject since fall 2018, Rodriguez Hidalgo also will talk about “Quasars: supermassive black holes and galaxies far, far away” in a Pub Night Talk on March 26 at McMenamins in Bothell. It’s the latest in a series of free public lectures when UW Bothell faculty share their knowledge with the community in a setting where the audience might also enjoy a beer.

Rodriguez Hidalgo has delivered other public lectures elsewhere and enjoys a casual setting where people can ask questions. She also is not intimidated by a crowd. She once co-taught an astronomy class with 1,400 students in an auditorium. Managing the nearly 30 teaching assistants was like a class of its own.

The introductory physics classes she has been teaching are larger than average for UW Bothell — with 70 and 90 students each — but she always learns everyone’s name. “Even if it’s a large class for them,” she said, “it feels smaller by creating a personal communication with each of them.”

Rodriguez Hidalgo finds that students work hard when she pushes them. “I challenge them, but they are really motivated, which is excellent.” And, she balances teaching with research. “I want both of them to be important.”

Rodriguez Hidalgo has formed a research group where undergraduates have the opportunity to help her analyze data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Students can work at different levels, depending on how much programming they know or how advanced they are in the physics, she said. The research might become a senior project and help students as they move on to graduate school or careers in technology.

A brain surprise

If the Pub Night Talk is like her previous talks on quasars, Rodriguez Hidalgo expects some people to be so overwhelmed with information they will have looks on their faces of “What just happened?”

Rodriguez Hidalgo plans to disentangle the information and present it bit by bit. Still, she expects, “blowing your mind is going to happen.”

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