Published Oct. 22, 2012

Bods In Space for Homecoming and in astrophysics

Homecoming logo, full colorHomecoming 2012 Washburn Odyssey: Bods in Space will be a week of spirit, fun and Ichabod pride. But in the physics and astronomy department at Washburn University , Bods in Space has a whole different meaning.

Brian Thomas, associate professor of physics and astronomy, is studying the effect of major astrophysical events on ocean life in the final year of a grant funded by NASA. He works with collaborators at the University of Kansas and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland and Washburn student researchers.

These major astrophysical events include amazingly powerful gamma ray bursts, or GRBs, which occur when a star explodes, and smaller (in relative terms) solar flares, which are much more common and are caused by bursts of radiation at the surface of the sun.

Thomas has spent most of his research time studying GRBs since 2002. He joined the Washburn faculty in 2005. He said he first became interested in GRBs because “They’re big explosions. Who doesn’t love big explosions?”

The most interesting aspect of his research today, Thomas said, is the connection to the past.  

“It’s fascinating to think about life 100s of millions of years ago,” he said, “and then look forward, too.”

The research Thomas and his colleagues are doing as it relates to the past was featured in a recent online edition of Forbes Magazine.

As the research wraps up this year, Thomas will use Washburn’s high performance computing system and three different computer simulations, layered together, to create numerous models that will illustrate the range of effects a GRB could have on two particular species of phytoplankton (microscopic fish food). So far, Thomas said, the research indicates the effect may not be as dire as originally predicted.

Thomas hopes to next study the effect of a GRB on an entire ecosystem.

At Washburn, he teaches physical science for elementary education majors, introduction to astronomy and a upper-division courses for physics majors. He discovered his own interest in physics as a college freshman.