Physics student Hidde Stoffels investigates dark matter in outstanding undergraduate thesis
He makes music, goes to the athletics track twice a week and, according to his supervisor, has done his research so well that it would not be out of place in a PhD research. Physics and astronomy student Hidde Stoffels' undergraduate research on the properties of dark matter is of such high quality that he has been nominated for the Leiden Science Young Talent Award 2022. 'The undergraduate research project was one of the most fun parts of the whole degree!'
Studying what you can't see
Stoffels' goal was to investigate the spatial distribution of dark matter. But that's not an easy thing to do. 'Since we can't observe it directly, we look at the distribution of hydrogen gas instead. This is about the same', he explains. 'And you can do that by looking at the spectrum of quasars. Those are bright light sources in other galaxies. In this way, we hope to indirectly determine the properties of dark matter.'
The challenge for his project lied in the details: 'The problem is that this translation is not one-to-one. The properties you derive from the spectrum are not exactly the same as those of the distribution of hydrogen gas, nor is it exactly the same as the distribution of dark matter. Corrections must therefore be made, and that was what I investigated.'
Encapsulating the whole world in one theory
One thing was clear to Stoffels: it had to be a theoretical research project, not an experimental one. 'I can describe the data and put it in a graph, but what does that tell us? I really want to understand it.' Studying the properties of dark matter is important, according to the student: 'It helps to distinguish between different models of what dark matter is. We need that to complete the standard model that covers the entire universe. It describes all matter particles and their interactions. So dark matter must be included, but we don't yet know exactly how. I think it would be wonderful if we could make the standard model complete!
A promising career start
Stoffels' supervisor Alexey Boyarsky is laudatory: 'Hidde's result was the most optimistic expectation for the project. Without a doubt, he turned out to be the best undergraduate I have supervised so far.' Stoffels himself responds very modestly: 'I was actually quite surprised. Professor Boyarsky said that my thesis was very good and I gladly believe him. But looking at it myself, I think a few things could have been better. And my fellow students also had such interesting theses, they might as well have been nominated.’
Stoffels is now enrolled in the theoretical physics master's track at the University of Amsterdam. He is looking forward to pursuing a scientific career: 'After my master's I want to continue in academia. I find it a very appealing idea to do more research.'