Raffaella Margutti is an associate professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley's College of Letters & Science, Division of Mathematics & Physical Sciences. In 2021, Margutti was awarded the 2022 New Horizons in Physics Prize, awarded every year to early-career scientists by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.
At what point in your life did you decide to become an astronomer? What inspired that decision?
I have always been deeply fascinated by the fact that we can use math as a language to interpret the most distant phenomena that we know of. I just could not resist the attraction of using a language invented here on Earth (math) to learn about the past and future of our universe. There was never a moment in my life where I felt that I took that decision. I have always felt that the only thing I could do is astrophysics. I do not necessarily like traditional astronomy -- I like physics and I want to apply the physics to the cosmos. I do not have any inspirational astronomer figure that played a role when I was young, and I fundamentally have never looked up to others.
What drew you towards studying transient astrophysical events like supernova explosions and gamma-ray bursts? Why are these events important?
Astrophysics aside, I deeply enjoy the burst of adrenaline associated with the discovery of new explosions, and I like competing (in a healthy way, I mean the good competition). This field of time domain astrophysics is highly competitive and it is a natural environment for me. These events probe physics at the very extreme, under conditions that we cannot achieve here on this planet Earth. It is just like having the most powerful laboratory up high in the sky to perform the most extreme experiments that you can think of -- the problem is that you do not know when and where the lab is open for business--i.e., when and where some star explodes, which for me is part of the fun. Also, for reasons that I can't explain in any logical way, I have always been attracted to gravity, and these violent explosions are the places in our universe where gravity happens at the very extreme. These events are manifestations of how gravity always wins.
How did you become an expert at investigating astronomical explosions across a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum including X-ray, UV, optical, and radio?
For my thesis for the second level degree in astrophysics (equivalent to your master's degree), I studied optical spectroscopy of galaxies that host Gamma-Ray Burst explosions. Then just by chance, my Ph.D. aligned with the beginning of the Swift mission and the Swift team happened to be from the United States, United Kingdom, and Italy, and I started working with X-ray data from Swift-XRT. From there I expanded to the gamma-rays and for my postdoc at Harvard, I decided to embark on UV as well. There, I understood the value of radio for stellar explosions. And here is how it all happened. Multi-wavelength is the only way to constrain the physics of these phenomena and make progress.
During your outreach activities, what are some comments made or questions asked by kids that have tickled you?
Some of the most amusing questions were about acquiring superpowers by absorbing the energy of stellar explosions, to which I reply by saying that we already have superpowers: those that allow us to use simple equations to understand something deep about the universe.
What do you like doing when you're not studying violent astrophysical events?
Singing. I was trained as a soprano while I was growing up in Italy. Singing brings me peace of mind and allows me to focus and concentrate, and relax, in ways that I cannot do otherwise.
To learn more about our astronomy department, visit their website at https://astro.berkeley.edu/.