Universal Beginnings

Observational astronomer and astrophysicist Anna Frebel led students and faculty on Monday, December 6, in a discussion of the chemical and physical conditions of the early universe, the birthplace of the heavy elements that we know today, and her research on some of the oldest stars in the universe. 

The Zoom videoconference was organized by the Loomis Chaffee Physics and Astronomy Club as part of its Evening of Science series. Senior Lillie Szemraj, Physics and Astronomy Club president, facilitated the discussion. 

Through detailed visuals and discussion, Ms. Frebel told the story of the beginning of the universe and described how the chemicals involved in the initial nuclear synthesis event, or Big Bang, were strewn throughout the universe. These chemicals, or heavy elements, are found in all the stars and planets of our universe.  

She also explained the life cycle of a star, including the fact that every new star contains more of the heavy elements than the existing stars in the universe. Older stars contain a smaller amount of chemicals, and by studying these older stars, we can better understand the original chemical make-up of the universe, she said. 

For their research, Ms. Frebel and her team frequently use the Magellan telescope in Las Camas, Chile. The data that the telescope gathers aided their discovery of seven stars in the ancient, ultra-faint dwarf galaxy Reticulum II. 

Ms. Frebel earned her doctorate from the Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory and did postdoctoral work as a W.J. McDonald Fellow in Austin, Texas, and as a Clay Fellow at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Mass. She has authored more than 120 papers in peer-reviewed journals and received numerous recognitions and awards for her work. She is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.