Monday, July 20, 2015

Someone You Should Know: Lauren Woolsey

It is a privilege to live on the campus of Harvard University for the second time in two years.  Very often, I bump into fascinating intellects who highly value conversing with a stranger about scientific topics.  It is the social aspect of living here that has made my time here exhilarating.  For now, I ask the reader to forget the prestige and pompous sense of superiority that people sometimes associate with the Harvard name.  I would like to focus on the many humble, amiable and passionate human beings that roam the confusing hallways of one very large building in particular: the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Like a dry sponge in despair for moisture, I have taken a plethora of opportunities to gain wisdom, knowledge and understanding about the Universe from the hundreds of astronomers that currently call the CfA home.  My quest for knowledge has recently drawn me to an intelligent, outgoing individual named Lauren Woolsey.  This is actually the third or fourth time that I have chatted with Lauren about her successful—albeit young—career and research experiences.  I find it interesting that in a building/organization of hundreds of notorious and highly respected astronomers, I have conversed with her (one graduate student among many tenured professors) this many times within my two short stays here in Cambridge.  (This has happened with a couple other graduate students as well.)  In hindsight, I think this is primarily due to how interesting of a person and researcher I find her to be, as well as how well she can hold a conversation.  Maintaining an interesting conversation (about anything) is something that MANY scientists are INCAPABLE of doing!!  However, there is a strong tendency for scientists at the CfA to go against this trend.


So, why is Lauren Woolsey someone you should know?

Well, besides her intellect, interpersonal skills and lively nature, I would say that you should know her because she is proactively helping the science community make better predictions for the occurrence of solar storms and the intensity of solar wind.  With her help, the astronomy community is getting one step closer to understanding the very complex configuration and activity that defines the magnetic field lines of the Sun.  However, this explanation only skims the surface of what Lauren has been primarily studying for the past 4 years now.  But before I explain her research further, let me first briefly elaborate on the complexity of the Sun’s magnetic field.   

Figure 1: Over the course of years, the differential rotation of the Sun causes the magnetic field lines to intertwine chaotically.  (Animation Credit: http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov)
The Sun rotates faster at the equator than at other latitudes.  This is why the equatorial part of magnetic field lines get dragged quicker than other ends of the magnetic field lines.  Mass in the form of extremely hot and ionized gas called plasma is magnetized and travel along these magnetic field lines.  Because the magnetic field lines undergo such chaotic tangling, it is tough to predict the abrupt changes of local magnetic field strengths and the commencement of vehement magnetic activity.  Such violent activity includes coronal mass ejections of plasma and solar flares.  

Although violent solar events are primarily observed in the chromosphere and corona, such activity commences in regions closer to the Sun's core.  This is why solar flares in the corona are often observed above a magnetic region, in the chromosphere, which would be above a sunspot, in the photosphere.

Figure 2: Layers of the Sun.  The corona is the outermost layer. (Picture Credit:
www.nasa.gov)
In the research that I will summarize in my next blog post, you'll see that Lauren primarily focuses on the photosphere, chromosphere, and corona of the Sun.  Astronomers like her understand that events observed from the outermost layers of the Sun are due to magnetic activities taking place closer to the Sun's core.

to be continued...


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