Objects in space usually follow a simple rule: the bigger you are, the brighter you shine. But every so often, something comes along that doesn’t fit that neat pattern.
They’re some of the most mysterious objects in our universe, and trying to figure out what makes them tick helped win Ryan Urquhart of ICRAR at Curtin University this year’s ExxonMobil Student Scientist of the Year award.
“They’re so rare that there’s actually none in our galaxy. You have to look outside the Milky Way to see them,” Ryan says.
These ‘ultraluminous X-ray sources’ are only a few times the mass of our Sun but emit much more radiation than they should for their size. Bizarrely, Ryan’s research suggests these incredibly bright objects may actually be black holes.
“We think it’s having so much material falling in so quickly that makes them shine so brightly,” Ryan says.
That material, sucked from nearby stars, heats up as it falls in and sends X-rays blasting out across space. This incredible brightness, Ryan’s theory suggests, makes these some of the fastest-growing black holes in the universe.
Starting off small
Ryan didn’t dive straight into black holes. Instead he started small. Very, very small.
“I didn’t really know astronomy was something you could do as a career. I thought it was just a hobby. So I started off studying nanotechnology instead.”
“I was good at science in high school, but I didn’t really know what to do—just that I should probably go to uni.”
After taking a break from uni to drive trucks and a brief stint as a garbage collector, Ryan decided to give uni another shot.
“I still didn’t go to my nanotech lectures—but I did go to every single Astronomy 101 class.”
He changed his degree the next semester.
“We need more astronomers here in WA, especially with the MWA and ASKAP coming online and the space agency coming together.”
After completing an undergraduate and an honours project in astronomy, Ryan came back to do a PhD just to work with one of the lecturers who had inspired him most, ICRAR researcher Dr James Miller-Jones.
He submitted his PhD on black holes earlier this year.
Having found astronomy in a roundabout way, Ryan also takes the time to share the universe with others. He volunteers with Astrofest and takes time out to speak in schools.
“Plus, Astrofest is just about the only time I get to actually get behind a telescope,” he laughs.
(These days, astronomers mostly work with data or, as Ryan puts it, “sitting at a desk crunching numbers and writing code”.)
“I’m lucky enough,” he adds, “that I get to sit at my desk and do what I love.”
It seems once you figure out what makes you tick, there’s no limit to how bright you can shine.