First there was the Big Bang, the point when the Universe and even space and time were created out of the void. And after that there was darkness – because the Universe contained little more than hydrogen and helium gas. It was not until a few hundred million years later, after the first stars were formed, that anything became visible. This thirteen-billion-year-old light is still en route to us and can be received by our telescopes.
The ‘early’ Universe is an important research theme in Leiden astronomy. Hardly surprising, as the origin and evolution of stars, galaxies and black holes largely determines the history and the future of the Universe.
Leiden scientists study the physics and chemistry of star formation, both in nearby interstellar clouds and in distant galaxies. They also develop computer models that simulate as closely as possible the growth of the Universe to date so that they can make predictions for the future. The search for ‘exoplanets’ – planets outside our solar system – and trying to discover whether they contain life is a particularly active research topic.
Progress in astronomy is often driven by better observations, which means better telescopes. Leiden is a partner in the construction of the world’s most advanced instruments; one added advantage of this is that it entitles our researchers to guaranteed observation time once these much-coveted instruments are operational. Examples include the – largely Dutch – LOFAR radio telescope and the ALMA observatory in Chile. Both of these have recently been completed and have many productive years ahead of them. Leiden astronomers are also intensively involved in the construction of the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and the James Webb Space Telescope, which will further extend the boundaries of what can be observed in the coming decade.
Ultimately, these billion-euro projects and the simulations of the Universe on supercomputers all serve the same goal: they aim to tell the big story, from the Big Bang to the present day. But understanding the Universe is just one benefit to come from astronomy: the technical demands placed on the telescopes and instruments drive engineers to extreme limits, and ensure innovation. Many of the technologies developed to make astronomy research possible are also applied to improving life on Earth. ISPEX, for example, the device for your mobile phone that allows you to measure particulates in the air, originated from the technology needed to detect exoplanets.
The astronomy institute at Leiden University has a strong international reputation, as does Dutch astronomy in general. MSc and PhD graduates and researchers spread out over the whole world, and hold prominent positions in the astronomy community. One of these is Leiden theoretician Tim de Zeeuw, who was Director-General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) for ten years. Another is Ewine van Dishoeck, who played a crucial role in realising the major worldwide ALMA observatory in Chile, and will become President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2018. But according to Van Dishoeck, that’s not the most important thing: ‘Here in Leiden it’s not about a few big names; research in Leiden is absolutely top quality and that applies from young to old, across a broad spectrum.’
For Leiden Observatory, communicating with the public is one of its core tasks, and Leiden astronomers are regularly to be found in the media. A deeper insight into the Universe has a cultural value that is recognised by broad layers of society. Director Huub Röttgering: ‘We want to understand our place in the Universe, and communicate that to the world.’