Summer Centered: Nick Sweeney ’19 Sheds Light on Dark Matter
Working alongside Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Daniel Grin, Sweeney is using novel dark matter models to describe the structure of the early universe.
For student researcher Nick Sweeney ’19, a typical day in the lab doesn’t look quite like what you might expect. “It’s fair to say that since my project is theoretical, most all of my time is spent with a pencil and paper or a mouse and keyboard,” he says. “[It] is not like that of a biologist, chemist, or even an experimental physicist.”
Funded by the Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center (KINSC)’s On-Campus Scholars program, Sweeney is using mathematical models to replicate the ways galaxies clumped together in the early universe—and, hopefully, to learn more about the nature of dark matter as a result. Dark matter, Sweeney explains, “comprises over 80 percent of the matter in the universe, and unlike ordinary matter, dark matter does not emit light, so there is a limit to what we can learn about it observationally.”
Sweeney has a passion for “the deep mysteries of the universe,” as he puts it, and— as an astrophysics major and a philosophy minor —he’s willing to explore any avenue he can to understand them.
Dark matter is one such mystery, and his research fellowship represents a way to actualize that passion in a scientific capacity. Besides that, he sees his work this summer as an excellent opportunity to develop practical skills that he might not otherwise be able to.
"Many of my tasks involve writing and modifying computer code to produce plots of physically significant quantities that track the collapse of dark matter in the early universe,” Sweeney says. “In this way, I hope to continue improving my coding ability in the languages that I have been using. I also see research as an opportunity to become a more mature communicator of my work. Many of the concepts and mathematical tools I am working with are quite abstract and my work will only be fulfilling if I can convey a concise, yet meaningful message about my research to multiple audiences.”
These sorts of skills will be helpful to him in both the short-term, as he prepares to write his senior thesis on the topic this fall, and the long-term, as he looks ahead to a possible career in astrophysics or a related field.
For those reasons and more, Sweeney is grateful for the opportunity to work with recent NASA ATP grant-awardee Grin.
"I am lucky to have the opportunity to continue exploring my interest in dark matter through research with Professor Grin,” he says, noting that he’s also thankful for his courses at Haverford for “[introducing] me at a basic level to the more abstract physical concepts that I am now thinking about on a daily basis.”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.