Irish astronomer brings science closer to finding origins of magnetism


Science is closer to understanding how magnetism first arose in the Universe thanks to a DCU astronomer working on a part Irish telescope.

Shane O’Sullivan, using the I-LOFAR telescope – part of the LOFAR network of Europe-wide observation stations based at Birr Castle – has measured incredibly weak, far off intergalactic magnetic fields with greater accuracy than ever before, and reported in the journal MNRAS.

“Scientists want to know, for example, if cosmic magnetism originated just after the Big Bang, or much later when stars or galaxies formed,” says Shane O’Sullivan, an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at DCU.

Up to now, astronomers have used computer simulations to try and predict the strength and origins of cosmic magnetic fields, but this is the first time that the fields have been directly observed with such accuracy.

Astronomers want to understand the origin of magnetism, an energy that is everywhere in the universe producing repulsive or attractive forces.

The challenge is to measure magnetic fields in space that are incredibly weak – about one billion times weaker than an average fridge magnet.

Understanding magnetism’s origins, says Prof O’Sullivan, can provide a better understanding of the Universe and questions like how stars form. There are also down to earth reasons for studying cosmic magnetism.

“Magnetic fields exist everywhere in the Universe and they are crucial for modern technology such as our smartphones, and communication and navigation systems,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “We want to understand how they were first produced, and where they came from,” he says.

The effort put into building I-LOFAR and the software to measure cosmic magnetic fields could, O’Sullivan says, benefit wider society.

“This kind of research can benefit all of us in unpredictable ways,” says O’Sullivan. “Remember, for example, that WIFI was invented by a radio astronomer who was studying exploding mini–Black Holes.”