Professor E. Sterl Phinney

Understanding neutron star companions
Two periods of 2.5 months in winter and summer 2016

ESP_Radboud_PhotoWho is Sterl Phinney?

Prof. E. Sterl Phinney is currently head of the Caltech Astrophysics Department in Pasadena. Phinney studied astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and obtained his PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics at Cambridge University (UK). He received several awards for his work (like Salpeter Lectureship, Cornell University (1999); Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society (1995); Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow (1990-94); Presidential Young Investigator (1985-1990)). He is fellow at the American Physical Society, Royal Astronomical Society and member of the American Astronomical Society.

What is his research project about?

As Phinney wrote in his proposal, he was 'motivated by the bands on Jupiter, and the winds of Venus' to investigate the transport of heat around stars. Detailed simulations show that the bottling of stellar heat on the irradiated side raises the temperature on that side well below the heating depth. For the first time, this opens up a possibility of understanding the observed neutron star companions: heated on one side, with most of the external heat escaping as radiation from the heated side, yet insulated on all sides by the bottling of their own internal heat so much that they swell enormously. Phinney is eager to spend time at Radboud University to investigate the many consequences of this efficiently.

'Gijs Nelemans and Frank Verbunt, with whom I have collaborated fruitfully in the past are experts in the calculation of the evolution of interacting binary stars. I hope that we can also use these ideas to develop a new understanding of the origin of the dramatic observational differences between apparently nearly physically identical systems.'

Why was he nominated?

Sterl's strong point is his unusually high wide grasp of physics and astrophysics. He understands the most advanced results related in the most wide sense to high-energy physics and astrophysics. Since his time in Cambridge, Phinney has worked on a huge variety of topics, ranging from compact objects, quasars, super-massive back holes, stellar dynamics and hydrodynamics. He is the type of scientist that works in many different fields and publishes only one or two papers on each of these. Those papers are then typically the best in the field.

The Radboud Astrophysics department has grown significantly since its founding in 2002. It is now quite substantial and has sufficient diversity in research topics to become an internationally competitive department. However, the theoretical basis of the department is rather narrow. 'The Radboud Excellent Initiative would allow us to strengthen the ties we have with one of the most brilliant theoretical astrophysicists working on many of the fields we are active in,' Phinney’s Radboud hosts say. 'Our experience is that a ten minute discussion with Prof. Phinney can often save us half a week of work and provides inspiration for new projects.

We will engage professor Phinney in teaching by organizing short specialist courses for IMAPP master and PhD students in the periods of his visit. He also will be a valuable source of information for our PhD students seeking a further career in the US.'

During his Radboud Excellence professorship

  • On 2 March, Sterl spoke at the Gravitational Waves Conference at the Amsterdam Science Park on the "Status of LISA Pathfinder"
  • On 26 February, Sterl gave a public lecture at the KNAW, Het Trippenhuis, Amsterdam entitled "What are gravitational waves and what can we learn from them?"
  • On 26 February, Sterl also gave a Radboud Excellence Lunch entitled "Gravitational Waves"
  • On 17 February, Sterl gave a University of Manchester, UK Astrophysics Colloquim entitled "Turning low mass X-ray binaries into millisecond pulsars and back, again and again and..."
  • On 11 February, Sterl served as a Radboud PhD examiner for the second time.
  • On 3 February, Sterl gave a University of Amsterdam Astrophysics Colloquim entitled "Turning low mass X-ray binaries into millisecond pulsars and back, again and again and..."
  • On 2 February, Sterl gave a Radboud Astrophysics Colloquim entitled "Turning low mass X-ray binaries into millisecond pulsars and back, again and again and..."
  • On 19 January, Sterl gave a public lecture at the Radboud Excellence Café Scientifique entitled "Amazing neutron stars".
  • Sterl was a guest speaker at Radboud Univeristy’s celebration marking 100 years of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity on 25 November 2015.
  • Sterl took part in a seminar called “Beautiful Gravitation”  at the Observatoire de Sauverny in Geneva, Switzerland on 6 November 2015.
  • Sterl led a workshop entitled "Enhanced and Imposter Tidal Disruption Events" at the Jerusalem TDE Workshop, organised by the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel on Wednesday 4 November 2015.

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