5 questions with… professor of astronomy, astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh

stacy_28Jun13_cropStacy McGaugh joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in 2012—a career move that was a long time coming for him and his family. For the previous 14 years, McGaugh commuted on a weekly basis between College Park, Md., and Cleveland. He worked as in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, while his wife, Anne, worked as a professor of history at John Carroll University.

Throughout the years, McGaugh got the weekly commute down to a science. Once he knew his semester teaching schedule, he scoured the Internet for sales, buying blocks of tickets at a time. He also became a good judge of seasonal weather patterns, making it easier to decide if flying or driving for six hours was a better option.

This analytical, scientific approach to any and all of life’s problems began at an early age.

“I was always interested in how things worked,” McGaugh said. “I had a natural curiosity and read a lot as a kid. I always wanted to know.”

That curiosity (and hard work) earned him a bachelor’s degree in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he began observing the night sky, piquing his interest in astronomy.

After starting graduate school in physics at Princeton University, McGaugh decided to instead pursue a career in astronomy. He and his wife headed to the University of Michigan, where they both earned post-doctoral degrees in their respective fields.

His career then took him across the earth, to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Rutgers University and the University of Maryland.

McGaugh’s research interests include: low surface brightness galaxies, tests of dark matter and alternate hypotheses, galaxy formation and evolution, and measurements of cosmological parameters.

His major focus is on low surface brightness galaxies, which are like spiral galaxies except their stars are thinly spread out.

“I’m interested in galaxies and how they came to be the way they are,” McGaugh said. “Low surface brightness galaxies interest me because they are hard to discover. The study of these galaxies has been revealing because they shed light on theories of galaxy formation in evolution.”

McGaugh’s research led him to discover that Freeman’s Law, which states that spiral galaxies all have the same surface brightness, was a selection effect: the brightest galaxies are the easiest to see.

“I was studying all these low surface brightness galaxies that weren’t suppose to exist,” he said. “That there was a simple explanation was a satisfying realization.”

Some of McGaugh’s more controversial research pertains to the topic of dark matter. He’s worked closely with Mordehai Milgrom, the father of the alternative hypothesis to dark matter, Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). MOND says that Newton’s force law must be tweaked at low acceleration—11 orders of magnitude lower than what is felt on the surface of the Earth. Acceleration above that threshold is linearly proportional to the force of gravity—as Newton’s law says—but below the threshold, it is not. At these tiny accelerations, the modified force law resolves the mass discrepancy.

Using this alternative hypothesis, McGaugh and Milgrom were able predict the velocity dispersions of stars within newly discovered dwarf galaxies prior to the measurement of this quantity.

In addition to his research, McGaugh also teaches a SAGES seminar titled “Perspectives on the Cosmos: From the Ancient Philosophers to Modern Science.” McGaugh’s willingness to challenge the status quo in academia is displayed throughout the course.

“The course is a great way for students to demonstrate their critical-thinking skills,” he said. “Also, is teaches them how to reason given the evidence at hand and gives them a sense of skepticism.”

Learn more about the astrophysicist in this week’s five questions.

1. Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter. I started a Twitter account to keep track of my daughter, but it’s actually a valuable way of keeping up on things and also good way of keeping people up with what you’re doing.

2. What is your favorite building on campus and why?
I have several. I like the Sears Building because that is where my office is located. I also like Adelbert Hall and the architecture of the older buildings. I also like to look at the Peter B. Lewis building.

3. What is your favorite vacation spot?
My favorite vacation spot is Lake Michigan. For the last 15 years my family and other family friends have rented a vacation house each summer.

4. What is one of your hidden talents?
My hidden talent is playing softball—specifically roaming center field. I was a good Little League player as a kid and still play at Forest Hills Park with some former and current members of the faculty.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
My favorite part about Case Western Reserve is the people.  My colleagues, especially here in the Department of Astronomy, the students and, in general, all of the people affiliated with the university.