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TED2015

Jedidah Isler: How I fell in love with quasars, blazars and our incredible universe

March 17, 2015

Jedidah Isler first fell in love with the night sky as a little girl. Now she’s an astrophysicist who studies supermassive hyperactive black holes. In a charming talk, she takes us trillions of kilometers from Earth to introduce us to objects that can be 1 to 10 billion times the mass of the sun — and which shoot powerful jet streams of particles in our direction.

Jedidah Isler - Astrophysicist
Jedidah Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes that emit powerful jet streams. They are the universe’s most efficient particle accelerators, transferring energy throughout galaxies. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
My first love was for the night sky.
00:12
Love is complicated.
00:16
You're looking at a fly-through of the
Hubble Space Telescope Ultra-Deep Field,
00:17
one of the most distant images
of our universe ever observed.
00:22
Everything you see here is a galaxy,
00:26
comprised of billions of stars each.
00:28
And the farthest galaxy is
a trillion, trillion kilometers away.
00:31
As an astrophysicist, I have
the awesome privilege of studying
00:37
some of the most exotic objects
in our universe.
00:40
The objects that have captivated me
from first crush throughout my career
00:44
are supermassive,
hyperactive black holes.
00:47
Weighing one to 10 billion times
the mass of our own sun,
00:53
these galactic black holes
are devouring material,
00:57
at a rate of upwards of
1,000 times more
01:00
than your "average"
supermassive black hole.
01:03
(Laughter)
01:07
These two characteristics,
01:09
with a few others, make them quasars.
01:11
At the same time, the objects I study
01:14
are producing some of the most
powerful particle streams
01:17
ever observed.
01:20
These narrow streams, called jets,
01:21
are moving at 99.99 percent
of the speed of light,
01:24
and are pointed directly at the Earth.
01:29
These jetted, Earth-pointed, hyperactive
and supermassive black holes
01:33
are called blazars, or blazing quasars.
01:39
What makes blazars so special
is that they're some of the universe's
01:43
most efficient particle accelerators,
01:47
transporting incredible amounts
of energy throughout a galaxy.
01:49
Here, I'm showing an
artist's conception of a blazar.
01:54
The dinner plate by which
material falls onto the black hole
01:57
is called the accretion disc,
02:00
shown here in blue.
02:02
Some of that material is slingshotted
around the black hole
02:03
and accelerated to insanely high speeds
02:06
in the jet, shown here in white.
02:08
Although the blazar system is rare,
02:11
the process by which nature
pulls in material via a disk,
02:14
and then flings some of it out via a jet,
is more common.
02:17
We'll eventually zoom out of
the blazar system
02:21
to show its approximate relationship
to the larger galactic context.
02:23
Beyond the cosmic accounting
of what goes in to what goes out,
02:33
one of the hot topics in
blazar astrophysics right now
02:38
is where the highest-energy
jet emission comes from.
02:41
In this image, I'm interested
in where this white blob forms
02:44
and if, as a result, there's any
relationship between the jet
02:48
and the accretion disc material.
02:52
Clear answers to this question
02:55
were almost completely
inaccessible until 2008,
02:57
when NASA launched a new telescope
that better detects gamma ray light --
03:00
that is, light with energies
a million times higher
03:04
than your standard x-ray scan.
03:07
I simultaneously compare variations
between the gamma ray light data
03:10
and the visible light data from
day to day and year to year,
03:14
to better localize these gamma ray blobs.
03:18
My research shows that in some instances,
03:21
these blobs form much closer
to the black hole
03:24
than we initially thought.
03:27
As we more confidently localize
03:29
where these gamma ray
blobs are forming,
03:31
we can better understand how jets
are being accelerated,
03:33
and ultimately reveal
the dynamic processes
03:37
by which some of the most fascinating
objects in our universe are formed.
03:40
This all started as a love story.
03:45
And it still is.
03:49
This love transformed me from
a curious, stargazing young girl
03:51
to a professional astrophysicist,
03:55
hot on the heels of celestial discovery.
03:57
Who knew that chasing after the universe
04:00
would ground me so deeply
to my mission here on Earth.
04:03
Then again, when do we ever know
where love's first flutter
04:06
will truly take us.
04:10
Thank you.
04:11
(Applause)
04:12

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Jedidah Isler - Astrophysicist
Jedidah Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes that emit powerful jet streams. They are the universe’s most efficient particle accelerators, transferring energy throughout galaxies.

Why you should listen

Jedidah Isler has been staring at the stars since she was 11 or 12. But because neither her undergraduate college or the university where she got her first master’s degree offered astronomy majors, she threw herself wholeheartedly into physics. It wasn’t until she entered a doctoral program that she was able to dedicate her time to the studying the night sky. In 2014, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D in Astrophysics from Yale.

Isler studies blazars — supermassive hyperactive black holes at the center of galaxies, some of which emit powerful streams of particles. Sometimes these are oriented toward Earth, offering us a unique perspective on the physics of the universe. Isler is a Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow in Physics at Syracuse University. She participates in the Future Faculty Leader program at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and was named a 2015 TED Fellow.

Isler is also interested in breaking down barriers that prevent many students — especially women of color — from becoming scienists. She works to make STEM accessible to new communities. 

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