Kirsten Kraiberg Knudsen

Searching for distant galaxies

Kirsten Kraiberg Knudsen− As a kid, I used to look up at the sky and the stars, and wonder what was out there. Even though being curious about many things, my interest in astronomy was the strongest and ultimately it became my career. Now I am trying to understand how galaxies like our own Milky Way emerged.
Kirsten Kraiberg Knudsen, assistant professor in astronomy, focuses her research on the formation and evolution of galaxies. More specifically, she studies distant galaxies in our 13.7 billion years old universe, looking back in time to understand what happened in the first few billion years after the big bang. Many such galaxies are the building blocks or early phases of the galaxies we see today. Galaxies are full of stars, and dust and gas. The gas and the dust are the ingredients for making new stars, and also planets and life. One of the goals of Kirsten’s research is to understand how galaxies grow.
Just recently an exciting discovery was made by Kirsten and the international team she works with. With the help of the Alma telescope in Chile, the world’s most sensitive mm-wavelength telescope, they detected one of the youngest and most distant galaxies that we know today, seen only 700 million years after the big bang. The big surprise was the large amount of dust emission that was detected from it. It has been believed that it takes long time to build up dust, since the majority of it comes from dying stars, but this galaxy evidently has progressed very rapidly.
Kirsten came to Chalmers in 2011 as an assistant professor in basic science. As a stepping stone, this position has enabled her to build her own research group based on funding from different places. In particular she considers herself fortunate being one of the first Wallenberg Academy Fellows – a fellowship for young leading scientists in fundamental research in Sweden. Basic science is fundamental to today’s technology, and Kirsten emphasizes that it is essential to society that resources are distributed to both basic and applied research.
−To the society the basic sciences are of vital importance, a lot of what we today take for granted is based on unexpected discoveries in for example physics, chemistry and medicine. It is crucial that decision makers recognize this and maintain the long-term view by funding basic science. It is this knowledge that prepares us for future challenges.
Universities, she thinks, need to drive fundamental science, just as the newly founded Centre for Advanced Studies is supposed to do. The universities provide a much better place for research driven by the need for knowledge and not by commercial needs. It is also important to keep in mind that technological development is parallel to basic science, and the feedback between those two is of mutual benefit, for example, the technology needed for large physics or astronomy experiments often results in spin-off products.
− Basic sciences need to be much more visible. It is important to have a voice in science politics and be able to influence. The outcome of our work, the product, is knowledge. We need to inspire and stimulate the younger generation, in fact we need to inspire everybody. With modern means of communication, information spreads very quickly, but it is a major challenge to ensure that knowledge is built and maintained.

Published: Wed 10 Feb 2016.