A Professor Brings the Wonders of the Universe Down to Earth for Millions, as a Researcher and TV Show Host

Matthew O’Dowd

By Lida Tunesi

Whether he’s guiding people through the night sky at Burning Man, chatting with Neil deGrasse Tyson on the radio, or hosting a PBS science show, Professor Matthew O’Dowd (GC/Lehman, Physics) has found myriad ways to share his curiosity and awe for the cosmos.

He wasn’t always so sure about his career, though. Growing up in Australia, O’Dowd liked science but didn’t know what path to take.

“There was a period of time in my uncertainty where I started to read a lot of books about physics,” he said. “The field felt to me like it promised to answer some of the big questions I had, where I wasn’t satisfied with answers I had previously been given.”

Within physics, astrophysics was a natural choice. 

“It seemed like a path to the most awesome experiences,” he said, “and a way to think about the biggest, most distant, most awesome things, then apply physics to them.”

After attending graduate school in Baltimore, O’Dowd secured a postdoctoral position in New York City, and has lived here ever since.

Today, O’Dowd uses gravitational lensing to study some of the most distant objects in the universe. The way Einstein described the universe, gravity — and thus anything with mass — creates curves in the fabric of spacetime. This means that if a massive galaxy sits in an astronomer’s line of sight to a more distant galaxy, for instance, the more distant galaxy’s image will curve and warp as it bends around the closer galaxy’s gravitational field. For astrophysicists, this warping can actually be beneficial, like adding an extra magnifying glass to their telescopes. 

Taking advantage of gravitational lensing, O’Dowd studies quasars, extremely bright and distant objects powered by supermassive black holes. His research team is currently building tools that will be needed to study the thousands of gravitationally lensed quasars that they expect to be discovered in the decade-long Legacy Survey of Space and Time, which will be conducted by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, starting in a few years.

The mystery and fascination around outer space makes it a great way to get people interested in science.

“In astronomy, we really value outreach,” O’Dowd said. “I’ve spoken to groups in pubs, to amateur astronomy societies, and at public observing nights — all sorts of events.”

Notably, O’Dowd landed a role hosting the PBS show Space Time on YouTube. Over the years, he has explained everything from supersymmetry to anti-matter, to how to conceptualize the edges of an infinite universe. O’Dowd has done 270 episodes, and he writes them too, sometimes with help from a science writer or another physicist.

With like-minded friends, O’Dowd has also brought astronomy to the 70,000-some people who attend the Burning Man festival in Nevada every year. In collaboration with a Burning Man artist and designer, the group built domes, brought in telescopes, and gave talks about the night sky. They dubbed the project Black Rock Observatory.

“Burning Man is really quite a remarkable event,” O’Dowd said. “It tends to attract people who are very curious and interested in exploring different ideas. All of them are very receptive to being shown the universe.”

O’Dowd has also appeared as a guest on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show and podcast StarTalk Radio, the Discovery Channel docuseries How the Universe Works, the YouTube show BrainCraft, and the CUNY TV series Science Goes to the Movies.

At the Graduate Center, O’Dowd currently works with four Physics Ph.D. students, and is on the faculty of the new master’s program in astrophysics.

“I think the new program will really do some good things,” O’Dowd said. “One of them is to serve as a transitional step toward getting a Ph.D. It’s really hard to get into a good Ph.D. program out of undergrad if you’re not already set up to win.”

Along with other Graduate Center physics faculty members, O’Dowd has been involved with an NSF-funded program called AstroCom NYC. The CUNY-based program provides research experience and mentorship to undergraduate students, and supports them as they apply to graduate school.

“The master’s program is a way to expand this endeavor to the next step,” O’Dowd said. “I really enjoy working with the students at CUNY. They’re talented. For another thing, many of them are first-generation college students, and they have an impressive level of drive and enthusiasm, and a willingness to work hard and explore.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing 

Submitted on: DEC 1, 2021

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