In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Natalia Lyskova is spending her 2nd year as a postdoc at HSE Faculty of Physics working in a Joint Department of Space Physics with the Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The HSE Looktalked to her about the ongoing research and upcoming plans.

 What are your research interests?

I am a big fan of astrophysics. My research is mainly focused on extragalactic physics, it means that I study objects far away from our Galaxy, among them you can find distant elliptical galaxies or even clusters of galaxies. I concentrate on different physical phenomena which happen in distant galaxies/clusters. One of the tools we use to study these objects is gravitational lensing. It is an astrophysical effect when the light travelling from a distant source changes its trajectory due to the gravity from the cluster of galaxies, for example. My master thesis was devoted to gravitational lensing. Maybe it’s a reason why I’m keen on it - gravitational lensing was my first love, I’ll never forget it. Also, with the help of this phenomenon, we can study mass distribution in the galaxy clusters or in elliptical galaxies, and use the results of this analysis, for instance, in cosmology to derive the properties of our Universe as a whole. To put it in a nutshell, I focus on large scales and large objects in space.

Do you work with other teams’ data or do you collect it yourself as well?

I’m glad you asked, since it’s one of the reasons why I applied for a position in Moscow. Normally, we use data from existing space telescopes (like XMM-Newton or Chandra X-Ray Observatory), but all of them are European, Japanese or American. We have access to INTEGRAL (International Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory ) data because Russia helped to launch it, but next year we expect to have a satellite telescope of our own thanks to a joint Russian-German project. The exciting thing about it is that we are going to have lots of new data to analyse rather than following up on the work done by others. It’s going to be an X-Ray telescope, thus, it needs to be launched on a satellite. It will be able to do surveys, meaning that we will get an opportunity to observe all the sky and detect, for example, all clusters of galaxies above a certain mass. In this case, we can reach more conclusive results about cosmology, because we will have a more representative sample of objects rather than rely only on partial data (e.g. from most luminous objects). And as far as I remember, the most recent surveys in the medium energy X-ray range were done around 20 years ago, and a lot has changed and improved in the sensitivity of the telescopes.

You are organising a conference in December, could you tell more about it?

It’s an annual conference on high-energy astrophysics organised by the Space Research Institute of RAS. The conference is held in Russia, and there are a lot of participants from other countries and international research centers, so it offers a good chance to learn about the latest research results as well as plans from colleagues across the world. For instance, we expect Peter Predehl from Germany, as well as other scientists who are working on the joint telescope project. Personally, for me it’s a great opportunity to meet my friends with whom we studied in Germany several years ago and who currently live and work in different places, such as Finland, USA, UK, Germany, etc.

Do you participate in any events at HSE – open lectures, seminars, discussion groups?

I gave a couple of talks - one at the HSE Festival of Science Lunokhod-1 and one at the open lectorium organised by the Faculty of Physics. They were popular talks about a recent breakthrough in astrophysics and physics in general, and it’s been an interesting challenge for me to convey these ideas to a general audience that does not have an in-depth knowledge of physics, but I enjoyed it very much. When you try to explain in simple words what you are actually doing as a scientist, it’s not easy, and it’s very rewarding to get relevant questions from the audience which show that they really understand the essence of the issue. Also, I had a chance to walk around the festival a bit, and was really impressed because many students were there to learn and try something new.

What are your plans for this year as a postdoc?

Normally, I have three to five ongoing projects, and I need to finish them before the new telescope starts working full-power, so that I could then get fully immersed in working with the new data. I did not yet have a chance to take up teaching any courses at the Faculty, but I am thinking about this for the next academic year. On the one hand, you have to invest a lot of time in preparing the lectures and checking the course assignments, on the other hand, teaching has its own advantages and rewards.

Read more in the full December 2018 issue of The HSE Look