Anne-Marie Weijmans

Astronomer

  • BORN 1981Boxmeer, Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands
  • WORKED Leiden University (the Netherlands), University of Toronto (Canada) and currently at the University of St Andrews (Scotland)
  • HONOURS STFC Leadership Fellow in Public Engagement (2018 – 2021); Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, University of St Andrews (2015 – 2017); Dunlap Fellowship, University of Toronto (2009 – 2013); PhD in Astronomy, Leiden University (2009)

Artistic Connections

I play the oboe, and I’m quite an active amateur musician! I play in the chamber orchestra and the baroque ensemble of the University of St Andrews, and you can also find me in the orchestra pit for Gilbert and Sullivan performances. I started the Shine project to combine science with music and art, and when Frances Lynch approached me for the Echoes project on Scotland’s Superwomen of Science I did not have to think long before saying yes.

MUSIC


Title: Dark Matters
Composer: FRANCES M LYNCH
Words by: MARY SOMERVILLE
Written: February 2019
For: Solo Mezzo Soprano and Orchestra
Performed by: Margaret Cameron with simulated orchestral instruments
First Performed: February 18th 2019 at the Old Kirk, Kirkcaldy Margaret Cameron and players from Kirkcaldy Orchestral Society conducted by Graeme Wilson

The galaxy featured in Frances’ piece is NGC 2974. It is an elliptical galaxy that is surrounded by a beautiful large ring of cold gas. By measuring the motions of the stars in the galaxy, and of the gas in the ring, I made a rotation curve: this is a graph that shows you the velocity versus the radius (distance from the galaxy centre). The rotation curve of NGC 2974 rises quickly and steeply in velocity from the galaxy centre outwards, and then remains flat. This shape of the rotation curve is reflected in Frances’ music. That the rotation curve is flat, means that at large distances from the centre the stars and gas still move around with high velocities, much higher than we would expect. We need invisible mass, dark matter, to explain the rotation curve of NGC 2974.

NGC 2974 is my favourite galaxy, as it is the first galaxy that I started working with as a PhD student in Leiden. I published my very first paper, featuring this galaxy in 2008, and now more than 10 years later, my PhD student Meng Yang in St Andrews has picked up this galaxy again to test her new method to map dark matter. So it just seems fitting that in 2019 this galaxy is in the spotlight again, both scientifically and musically!

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

…..above the surface of the earth, the noise of the tempest ceases and the thunder is heard no more in those boundless regions, where the heavenly bodies accomplish their periods in eternal and sublime silence” (Mechanism of the Heavens)

“……for aught we know, myriads of bodies may be wandering in space unseen by us, of whose nature we can form no idea, and still less of the part they perform in the economy of the universe.” (On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences)

Education

In high school my favourite subjects were maths, physics and chemistry, so I knew quite early on that I wanted to go into science. When I then discovered you could study astronomy at University I was sold, as this field combines all of these three subjects. I did my undergraduate at Leiden University (combined BSc and MSc), and after graduating, stayed on to continue in astronomy with a PhD.

Occupations

Astronomer

I started my astronomy career in 2005, when I was hired as Assistent in Opleiding (Dutch version of PhD student) at Leiden Observatory, to map dark matter in nearby galaxies. I’ve been an astronomer ever since!

Maths Tutor

When I was a student, I was a maths tutor and helped high school students prepare for their exams.

Bread corner in supermarket

My very first job, in a small seasonal supermarket at a camping site. I still have a small scar from when I accidently walked into a very hot baking tray full of croissants…

Scientific Achievements

I want to understand how galaxies, like our own Milky Way galaxy, form and evolve. I study the movement of stars and gas in galaxies, and use these to better understand the structure of galaxies, and to map the invisible dark matter halo that surrounds them. I work in a large international team of astronomers, using observations of the Sloan Telescope in New Mexico (US). I coordinate the data releases for this team, helping to make sure that everyone has access to the observations so that everyone can work on their science.

Did You Know?

I knit, anything from socks to sweaters.

AN INSPIRING WOMAN

When I teach first year astronomy, I always talk about Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She started her astronomy career as a ‘human computer’, to analyse photographic plates with observations collected at telescopes. She discovered that a certain kind of variable stars called Cepheids could be used to determine accurate distances in the Universe. Her discovery was later on used by astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to show that the faint nebulae observed in the sky were actual galaxies outside our own Milky Way, thereby vastly increasing the size of the known Universe at that time. We still use Cepheids up to this day to determine astronomical distances.

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