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Michael Beechert’s Guide to the Stars: Physics Professor Ryan Hickox

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Ryan HickoxA.jpgRyan Hickox is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. As an observational astrophysicist, he focuses the majority of his considerable energies on questions relating to supermassive black holes and how they affect the evolution of galaxies. The combination of Hickox’s research output, teaching prowess, and engagement in the Dartmouth community is particularly remarkable considering the fact that he has not (yet) received tenure.

After obtaining his B.S. in Physics magna cum laude from Yale in 2000, Hickox completed a two-year teaching fellowship at a boarding school in England, where he was a physics instructor, a rugby coach, and a residential advisor. With scholastic life having perhaps planted a seed in his mind, Hickox went on to Harvard for his Ph.D., which he completed in 2007. He remained in Cambridge for the next two years in order to work at the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory; in 2009, he moved back across the pond to Durham University to assume a position as a postdoctoral fellow. Hickox then joined the Dartmouth faculty in 2011, where he has been ever since.

Hickox has been an extraordinarily productive researcher during his relatively short time as a member of the professional physics community. His 108 authored or co-authored articles (generating an h-index of 38 and a citation count of 4706) would be notable for someone with decades of experience; for a scholar as young as Hickox, such statistics are particularly impressive. If the numeric trends are any indication, Hickox has an extremely bright career ahead of him — his yearly citation count rose from 726 in 2014 to 916 in 2015 and 1147 in 2016. The dollar signs are there as well. In 2016, Hickox received a highly competitive $672,000 grant from the NSF to fund his research group and support an outreach program that brings scientists into classrooms by video chat.

Hickox researches areas that stupefy the mind and leave one feeling, for lack of a better word, insignificant. At the center of virtually every large galaxy in the known universe there exists a black hole, which is a celestial object so massive and so dense that it warps space-time in such a way as to not allow anything, even light, to escape from its sphere of influence. “Smaller” black holes have a mass measuring tens of times that of our Sun, but those at the center of galaxies are incomprehensively huge. With masses that reach billions and billions of Suns, these monsters are so influential that they, in fact, as Hickox has explored, affect the behavior of entire galaxies, which themselves can stretch hundreds of thousands of light-years across.

Galaxies, which initially assume the form of a disk, are born when normal matter cools, falls into the center of “halos” of dark matter, and condenses to produce stars. As disk-shaped galaxies grow, they can collide with one another to create even larger galaxies. These mergers can produce a “bulge” at the center of a galaxy so that it begins to look less like a disk and more like an ellipse. In theory, galaxies with a bulge should continue to produce stars much like they did when they were younger and disk-shaped. In fact, star formation often stops at this point, causing a galaxy to “die.” This course of events has vexed astronomers for decades.

As Hickox’s work has helped demonstrate, the explanation for the dying-galaxy phenomenon may well rest with supermassive black holes. Black holes at the centers of galaxies accrete mass by pulling in surrounding interstellar material. When they do so, tremendous energy can be released as radiation or energetic outflows that move near the speed of light. Hickox and his colleagues have theorized that this release of energy can stop star formation by expelling the gaseous ingredients for a star from the galaxy altogether or by heating them to a point where they are not able to condense.

This is only part of the picture, though — as Hickox’s group demonstrated in 2014, black hole activity can also occur with star formation. As it turns out, black holes flicker on and off at random in the figurative blink of a galactic eye (which, for us, measures millions of years). Observational data as gathered from instruments like the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which Hickox has personally used since his days in graduate school, have provided strong evidence that these breakthroughs are on the right track.

Hickox does more than enough to keep himself occupied when he’s not churning out valuable research. By the end of this academic year, he will have taught five different courses to Dartmouth students - Habitable Planets, Galaxies and Cosmology, Stars and the Milky Way, Observational Cosmology, and Exploring the Universe, the last of which is often an undergraduate’s introduction to the College’s physics and astronomy offerings.

Advising and community are moreover extremely important to Hickox, who currently has four undergraduates in his research group. He has also received an appointment as House Professor for West House until 2019 with the possibility of serving a second term that would last until 2023. Hickox, whose experiences at Yale, Harvard, and Durham led him to value the positive impact that cohesive residential communities can have on students, is optimistic about the future of Dartmouth’s house system:

…What we’re aiming to build in West House: a community in which those spontaneous interactions between faculty, students, and staff allow everyone to learn from each other’s diverse interests, talents, and backgrounds…. I see a real opportunity for the Houses to be an important vehicle through which Dartmouth further enhances its position as a leader in offering a vibrant intellectual experience for its undergraduates.

Let’s hope Professor Hickox is right, and let’s hope that he remains in Hanover a long, long time.

Addendum: You can hear Professor Hickox speak today from 3:30-4:30 pm in Wilder 104. His lecture, titled “The Hidden Monsters: New Windows on the Cosmic Evolution of Supermassive Black Holes,” is geared towards a general audience.

Addendum: Professor Hickox also participated in the “Pulsars and Quasars” episode of the History Channel series, “The Universe,” in 2009. If you’re into astronomy, watch the whole thing, but Hickox’s appearances begin after the 26:30 mark:

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