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BYU student's 'incredible' observation puts Hulk in his place

When audiences worldwide rush to theaters Friday, many will come to know the cause of Bruce Banner's transformation into the green-skinned Hulk -- an unintentional exposure to intense gamma radiation.

Off screen, a Brigham Young University astronomy student, who recently studied one of the brightest gamma-ray bursts ever to appear in the night sky, says real science differs drastically from the plot of the upcoming blockbuster.

"A gamma-ray burst wouldn't turn anyone into a green man, but it wouldn't be a good thing if it happened too close to Earth," says Peter Brown, a senior from Friendswood, Texas. "A gamma-ray burst would be about a billion times stronger than an explosion of the Sun and would destroy the planet."

Intrigued after studying gamma rays in his astronomy coursework, Brown joined the American Association of Variable Star Observers, to help track bursts. In March, after hearing the news that a satellite had detected a gamma-ray burst, Brown cancelled a date with his girlfriend to observe the phenomenon.

That night, using a telescope on the roof of BYU's Eyring Science Center, Brown was able to observe a colossal explosion more than a billion light years away. Brown's data measured how the gamma-ray burst's light faded over time, providing astronomers with more information about the mysterious origins of gamma-ray bursts.

Brown collected eight hours of data on the burst, which is included in a recently published article by AAVSO in the "Information Bulletin on Variable Stars."

"I didn't expect to see the gamma-ray burst immediately in camera images from the telescope," said Brown about the culmination of 18 months of searching. "When I saw the burst, I sat back in my chair, stared at the image and thought, 'There it is, finally.'"

The burst couldn't be detected without the aid of a telescope, but in space it was an enormous blast radiating from approximately a billion light years away. Since previously observed bursts have ranged from five to ten billion light years away, Brown was able to view burst GRB030329 for much longer than any previously seen because it was so close to Earth.

"This burst was bright enough that I knew on a clear night I would be able to see its afterglow hours after it had been initially spotted," said Brown. "I had read and heard about this type of gamma-ray burst but had never actually been successful in viewing one of my own."

According to Brown, like a superhero's secret identity, gamma-ray bursts are arguably the greatest mystery in all of observational astronomy. Because the bursts cannot sustain such levels of energy for long, they quickly fade, making them difficult to study. The exact source of the bursts and why they seem so prevalent in the early universe has yet to be ascertained.

Although studying gamma-ray bursts at BYU has been a product of Brown's own initiative, supportive faculty and the resources provided by the university have enhanced his research opportunities.

"As undergraduates, we really have a lot of opportunities to pursue our own projects, use telescopes and get guidance from professors to conduct successful research," says Brown.

Brown has worked closely with professor J. Ward Moody of the physics and astronomy department at BYU, who has mentored Brown throughout his education and during research-related projects.

"Peter is very self-motivated and confident in his abilities," says Moody. "This observation has helped Peter's undergraduate education because it has given an experience in real astronomy. It will make it much easier for him to get in to a good graduate school."

This summer Brown is continuing his research at the University of Oklahoma, studying links between gamma-ray bursts and supernovae. He will return to BYU in the fall to finish his undergraduate degree and hopes to motivate other undergraduates to take part in researching gamma-ray bursts.

Although Brown's close association with gamma rays hasn't transformed him into a gigantic green monster, he describes the experience of observing one of the universe's most powerful phenomena as nothing less than incredible.

"Gamma-ray bursts are a definite passion of mine," he says, acknowledging the hours spent searching for the mysterious phenomena. "There were moments of exhaustion, and discouragement, but unlike the Hulk, never the urge to destroy any nearby buildings with my bare hands."

Writer: Hilary Smoot


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