Demystifying the universe

Contact: Diana Hearit
Aug. 1, 2017

Read more about WMU researchers and their ongoing work in the WMU Magazine.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Poets have long found their inspiration in the stars, their imaginations soaring to the outer reaches of the universe.

And so, it may just make poetic sense that Dr. Elena Litvinova, one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER awards, is not only an assistant professor of physics at WMU, but, tucked among her degrees in physics, engineering and mathematics, is a master’s degree in literature and poetry.

Litvinova finds virtue in how words illuminate natural phenomena and in the equations that also explicate the physical world. She expresses the mystery of the stars best through her research in physics.

“When I was 14 years old, I read about quantum mechanics, Einstein’s relativity theory and Riemann’s geometry,” Litvinova says. “I was fascinated by the beauty of ideas embodied in the physical world, and this fascination has stayed with me throughout my entire life. I am extremely happy being engaged in advancing these ideas in my research and in sharing them with students, colleagues and a broader audience.”

The multi-talented professor not only enjoys her work as researcher and teacher, she’s good at it. The NSF took notice and is awarding Litvinova with its most prestigious and competitive award in support of junior faculty.

Advancing her field

Litvinova’s grant, which is in process and amounts to about $475,000, will support a project titled “From fundamental interactions to emergent phenomena: geometrical aspects of nuclear dynamics.”

The research, she says, explores three major questions:
•    How complex many-body dynamics—such as complex assemblies of forces and interactions—generate nuclear shapes;
•    How atomic nuclei behave at high temperatures;
•    And in atomic nuclei, what mechanism underlies superfluidity—the property of flowing without friction or viscosity.

As training the next generation of researchers is a key aspect of the award, “Our team will include two graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher, who will be carefully selected through an international search,”  says.

“Besides engaging graduate students in this research, the project includes outreach and education activities, such as art-science exhibitions and graduate courses, aimed at broadening the impact of the performed research and at attracting young talents to the field of nuclear physics.”

Herlik Wibowo, a doctoral physics student at WMU and a Fulbright Scholar, has been working with Litvinova on one of the three major tasks of her winning project.
“This is a theoretical nuclear physics project as we do not run any experiment to obtain data,” he says.

“Instead of collecting the data from the experiment, we are developing a mathematical model to explain the experimental data. We are trying to gain a better understanding of the behavior of protons and neutrons when the atomic nucleus is subjected to external disturbances from gamma-rays or other particles.” Wibowo says that the obtained model can be useful in many ways.

“In the field of nuclear physics, a well-developed model will provide accurate information pertaining to several nuclear properties, such as mass, radius, decays and so on. In the area of nuclear astrophysics, the new model will provide a better understanding of r-process nucleosynthesis, which is the process describing the formation of elements heavier than iron.”

Novel ideas

Litvinova explains that low-energy nuclear physics has entered a new era with the advent of facilities that provide beams of radioactive, or unstable, atomic nuclei.
“Collecting experimental information about such exotic systems plays a key role for understanding the elemental composition of the universe and for predicting the evolution of stars and galaxies,” she says.

“Nuclear theory is another important source of information about exotic nuclei, which are not accessible experimentally, but needed for a complete picture of the universe.”
However, in spite of the many advances made in decades of research, a global high-precision theory for the description of structural properties of nuclei is still a challenge, she says.

“The presently available approaches to nuclear structure have constraints, such as limited applicability or a restricted treatment of complex nuclear dynamics, or correlations, which are crucial for the precision of the theoretical description. This project addresses both issues by implementing novel ideas about nuclear dynamics and by benchmarking the theory with newest experimental data.”

Litvinova has been advancing research in nuclear physics at WMU for about four years.

Originally from Russia, she earned her doctorate from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, in 2003. She became a senior scientist at the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering in Obninsk, Russia, and joined the Technical University of Munich, Germany, in 2005 as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow. She worked as a research associate at GSI Helmholtzzentrum fur Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt, Germany until 2012. She then moved to Michigan State University as a Facility for Rare Isotope Beams Theory Fellow in 2012. She assumed her current roles as an assistant professor of physics at WMU and as adjunct assistant professor at Michigan State in 2013.

“WMU offered excellent opportunities to work in research and higher education,” Litvinova says. “To work here as a faculty member was a unique chance to make a difference in our field of research and for my professional development.”