Brandt named Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Niel Brandt, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, has been selected as the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The appointment, effective Aug. 1, 2014, is awarded by the Office of the President of the University, based on the recommendation of the dean of the Eberly College of Science, in recognition of Brandt’s national and international reputation for excellence in research and teaching.

Brandt is an astrophysicist who studies supermassive black holes and conducts as well as analyzes cosmological surveys. Using data from sensitive X-ray observatories, Brandt has aimed his research program at understanding how the supermassive black holes found at the centers of galaxies feed, grow and affect the galaxies in which they reside.

Brandt uses X-rays to survey galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. His research is revealing how active galaxies differ from inactive ones and is showing how active galaxies have evolved over billions of years. Active galaxies containing a central core, called the active galactic nucleus, emit tremendous amounts of radiation at all wavelengths from X-rays to radio waves. These energetic emissions occur when materials, including gas clouds and stars, are sucked into the gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole in a process called accretion.

Brandt’s research group has focused its work in several areas. A key focus is creating the most sensitive cosmological X-ray surveys to date using the world’s most advanced X-ray observatories. These X-ray surveys have revealed many active galaxies that were missed in surveys at other wavelengths. Another benefit of these X-ray surveys is that they have been matched with multiwavelength complementary surveys that together have enabled scientists to characterize in detail the newly detected sources. The combined X-ray and multiwavelength data have revealed much about the physical processes, demographics and interactions of active galactic nuclei with their host galaxies. Because of the extreme sensitivity of the surveys, Brandt’s lab has been able to detect X-rays whose origins date back to close to the beginning of the universe -- reaching back across 90 percent of cosmic history.

Another research focus is on high-velocity outflows from active galactic nuclei that absorb X-ray and ultraviolet radiation. These outflows, which can carry considerable mechanical power, can actually push gas out of the nuclear regions around the black hole, and may thereby play a role in limiting the growth of black holes and typical massive galaxies.

Furthermore, Brandt’s group has led intensive X-ray observations of the most-distant-known active galaxies, aiming to study the growth of the first supermassive black holes that formed in the universe. Since the year 2000, his group has obtained more than 120 new X-ray detections of such extremely distant objects -- more than 10 times the number of pre-2000 detections. These well-defined samples of such objects now allow reliable X-ray population studies. Brandt’s research has helped to reveal that the basic X-ray properties of these distant objects generally appear remarkably similar to those of the active galaxies that are closer to our own Milky Way. His work supports the idea that X-ray emission is a nearly universal property of growing black holes even out to the earliest cosmic epochs.

Brandt also has worked in a number of additional areas, including studies of the center of our Milky Way, of galaxies with highly elevated star-formation rates and of binary star systems containing a black hole or neutron star.

Brandt’s research group has used instruments across the globe and in space. His team has made use of the most sensitive X-ray observatories, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). Brandt’s team also uses the versatile Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer space satellite, operated by Penn State; the Hubble Space Telescope; and the Spitzer Space Telescope. On land, his research projects have used instruments such as the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory, for which Penn State is a major partner and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at the Apache Point Observatory. Brandt has been involved in planning for the soon-to-be-constructed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). This major facility, primarily being funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, will be constructed in Chile with operations scheduled to begin in 2019-2022.

In addition to mentoring the members of his research group, Brandt teaches courses on high-energy astrophysics, black holes, active galaxies and introductory astronomy. He is also a lead instructor in summer outreach workshops that educate high-school teachers about black holes, cosmology and galaxies.

Brandt has been honored with an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in 1999, a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2000 and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy from the American Astronomical Society in 2004. He was named Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State in 2010.

Brandt earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1992 and his doctoral degree in astronomy at Cambridge University in 1996. He was a Smithsonian Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics from 1996-97.

Last Updated September 02, 2014