Major EU grant to unravel the mysteries of the Universe

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An astrophysicist has won a career-changing grant, which will put him at the forefront of international cosmological research

  • 03 September 2020
  • 6 min read

An astrophysicist has won a career-changing grant, which will put him at the forefront of international cosmological research. 

A researcher from the University of Portsmouth has been awarded a slice of €677 million funding to tackle one of the big cosmological mysteries.

Astrophysicist Dr Thomas Collett has won a five-year starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to perform ground-breaking research using the warping of spacetime around massive galaxies to learn about the expansion of the Universe.

Dr Collett, from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, said: “The expansion of the Universe is getting faster and we don’t know why. To solve this mystery I am using an effect called ‘gravitational lensing’.”

Gravitational lensing was first theorised by Albert Einstein more than 100 years ago to describe how light bends when it travels past massive objects like galaxies and galaxy clusters. 

Dr Collett said: “The bending is very small but when two galaxies are aligned on the sky to about 1/3600 of a degree we observe multiple images of the background galaxy. The image separation depends on the mass of the foreground galaxy, the theory of gravity and the expansion of the Universe.”

The funding for Dr Collett’s project ‘LensEra’ will allow him to take this research to the next level, using the next generation of astronomical survey telescopes to assemble a sample of gravitational lenses 100 times larger than is currently known. 

 

This is a huge investment from the EU in my science. The funding will enable me to build a team of researchers and to buy time on leading telescopes. It is a career changing opportunity and will place me at the global forefront of cosmological research.

Dr Thomas Collett, Astrophysicist

Together these lenses will enable Dr Collett to answer three cosmic questions: How fast is the Universe currently expanding? How does gravity work over astronomical distance scales? What is the dominant component of the Universe’s energy budget?

Dr Collett said: “This is a huge investment from the EU in my science. The funding will enable me to build a team of researchers and to buy time on leading telescopes. It is a career changing opportunity and will place me at the global forefront of cosmological research.”

ERC starting grant funding helps over 400 international early-career scientists and scholars to build their own teams and conduct pioneering research across all disciplines. The grants are part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020. 

President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: “The present health crisis showed that despite spectacular progress in research over the past decades, there still remain plenty of unsolved scientific mysteries, as well as lessons to be learnt from the past. Therefore, the best strategy to tackle it is to enable some of the brightest minds to pursue their most innovative ideas, in order to create opportunities for serendipitous discoveries. 

“This is what the European Research Council is for. It’s clear that, if Europe is to be competitive globally, it needs to give excellent prospects to the next generation of researchers as these ERC Starting Grants do, and to invest much more in top blue sky research.”

Dr Collett is one of 436 laureates this year across 40 different nationalities and based in 25 countries across Europe. Only 13 per cent of applications were selected for funding. 

 

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