Cool Cosmology + Coding = Answers to Life’s Big Questions

Arun Kannawadi
Assistant Research Professor of Physics Arun Kannawadi joins the Duke faculty this year. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Arun Kannawadi, assistant research professor of Physics, is helping in a worldwide push to learn more about the Universe, with the ultimate goal of figuring out how it began and how it might end.

“These are fundamental questions that many of us may have wondered when we were kids,” Kannawadi said. “I certainly did. I’m happy that I get to work on projects that will enable us to answer some of them.”

Kannawadi’s particular expertise and experience in the field of cosmology relate to designing software to process and analyze the enormous quantities of data being generated by multinational collaborative cosmology projects that will scan the Universe with ever-more precise telescopes on the ground and in space.

He joined the Duke faculty this Fall as a member of the cosmology group in the Department of Physics. “I bring in a strength that’s complementary to current faculty members,” he said. “I am bringing the hands-on experience involved in developing the scientific software for next-generation telescope surveys.”

Kannawadi excelled in electrical engineering and computer science in college, but was always in love with “cool physics and cool cosmology,” which he pursued in graduate school. In his current niche, he gets to combines his strengths and passions by applying his data-processing software skills to cosmology.

Specifically, he is one of the few in charge of writing the software for the projects taking place at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in the Chilean Andes. Next year, the observatory will begin scanning a third of the night sky every night for 10 years, using the biggest camera on Earth to probe the mysteries of the Universe.

Cosmologists all around the world, including at Duke, are collaborating to plan and carry out the massive effort. Kannawadi’s role is designing the software that allows cosmologists to measure how light is distorted by gravity as it travels from distant galaxies to Earth.

Measuring that distortion, called gravitational lensing, is crucial to understanding dark matter and dark energy, which together make up about 95% of the Universe. “We call these things dark matter and dark energy, but they are just placeholder terms,” Kannawadi said. “We have no clue what they are.”

Dark matter refers to the invisible matter that, together with visible matter, causes gravitational lensing. Astronomers know it exists because the visible matter in the universe doesn’t have enough mass to account for how much light bends.

Dark energy is the name of whatever force is counteracting gravity to allow the universe to expand at an ever-increasing rate.

The new observatory will be collecting data about the light being given off by billions of galaxies — many more than past sky-scanning projects. Kannawadi’s software will process terabytes of data with state-of-the-art accuracy and precision at speeds and at a scale that were previously impossible. This will allow cosmologists to measure gravitational lensing more precisely and at different distances from Earth. Different distances can be thought of as different times in the Universe’s past, with the light from far galaxies being older than the light from near galaxies, so this type of analysis illuminates the growth of the Universe over eons.

All of this will give cosmologists more information about both dark matter and dark energy, which in turn is expected to illuminate some of the bigger questions about the universe’s origin and fate.

Kannawadi’s hire will help round out the relatively new cosmology group in Duke Physics. Michael Troxel, associate professor of Physics, who joined the faculty in 2019, said, “We’ve done a lot of work building a coherent group that can take advantage of the next generation of telescopes and large cosmology collaborations.”

Troxel said that Kannawadi’s expertise in software design will add to the group’s strengths in research and also provide more opportunities for students and postdoctoral fellows at Duke who are interested in those aspects of cosmological exploration.

Students were a primary motivator for Kannawadi in his decision to come to Duke. “I’m looking forward to working with students who might want to do science with these new telescopes, or the kinds of software engineering projects that [open up opportunities] for data science or software engineering outside of academia,” he said.

As for his future research, Kannawadi hopes to squeeze even more information out of the large telescopes by combining different types of data collected from different vantage points — for example, optical data from the Rubin Observatory and infrared data from the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch sometime later this decade.

“The grand vision that some of us in the field have is to be able to combine data from the Roman telescope in space and the Rubin Observatory on the ground to maximize the scientific benefits,” Kannawadi said. “I see myself focusing on that joint analysis of data.”

When not contemplating life’s biggest questions, Kannawadi enjoys playing board games and making music with his wife. She plays the violin and he plays the piano. “I don’t consider myself proficient,” he said. “It’s just a way of unwinding and relaxing.”

Having moved to Durham from New Jersey, he is also looking forward to exploring the area’s hiking trails with his dog Pom.