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Wednesday, 14 January 2015 00:00

Alta's 'Interstellar' Tie: Deep Space Focus of Grad's Research

Physics and astronomy students at Alta High on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015 were given a glimpse into the deepest, darkest realms of space by a former Hawk who has become one of the rising stars in the world of astrophysics.

Dr. Robert Owen, a 1997 graduate of the Sandy school, spoke to more than 400 students about the life of a researcher and scholar in a mysteries-of-the-universe field of study. He also discussed what has been learned about the existence of black holes, and their movements, collisions, and gravitational waves.

“I’ve been wandering the (Alta High) halls, and everything looks so familiar,” Owen, a professor of physics and astronomy at Oberlin, told the Alta students. “Just a few years ago, I was in your seat, just a student at Alta High, and I had no idea what I would be doing with the rest of my life … What I knew is that I enjoyed my physics classes.”

The self-described “band geek” said he never dreamed he would someday be “paid to mess around with black holes and all that — but that is what happened.”  After graduating from Alta, Owen attended the University of Utah, where he began studying with Richard Price, the scholar behind Price’s Theorem, which is said to help explain the structure of a black hole.

While pursuing a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, Owen also studied with Kip Thorne, a friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and the brains behind the scientifically accurate "Interstellar," which Alta students saw in advance of Owen’s presentation. The Hollywood blockbuster, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, tells the story of astronauts who travel through a worm hole in an attempt to find an inhabitable planet.

The film was Thorne’s idea “long before (director) Christopher Nolan was attached to it,” Owen told students.  “It sort of started as a set of rumors, about a scientifically accurate movie about active black holes, worm holes, all the things we studied.”

Owen encouraged students to pursue research in a field of study that interests them. The life of a graduate student, he said, is fun and fascinating. It’s full of highly interesting research and classes in a chosen field of study, he said.

“The big change from undergraduate life is that your research is your own,” he said. It’s a time of “thinking your own thoughts, doing your own research,” and pursuing answers to deep questions.  “It’s a beautiful thing to be involved in,” he said. 

Teacher Matthew Leininger, who arranged Owen’s visit, lauded the professor for his presentation — and his accomplishments since leaving Alta.

“Some of the smartest people in the world” work in the field of astrophysics, studying such topics as the space-time continuum, Leininger said.  “And he’s in the group with them.” Owen’s presentation also showed the students what can be accomplished and what opportunities are available to them, he said.

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