The development of the universe

Francesca Lara Capel

Cosmic radiation is one of the greatest mysteries facing astrophysicists. The Earth is being bombarded incessantly with ultra-high-energy cosmic rays (UHECR). But nobody knows as yet where they come from. “Given their enormous energy, it is assumed that these particles are accelerated by explosive astrophysical events, possibly beyond our galaxy”, explains Francesca Lara Capel. A physics postdoc, she is conducting research at the Technical University of Munich and the ORIGINS excellence cluster.

This interdisciplinary Munich-based research network is studying the development of space from the Big Bang to the emergence of life. “Because we look not only at particle signals, but also at light – as in traditional astronomy – we are able to obtain a more accurate picture of how the high-energy universe functions”, says Capel. A Brit who grew up in Wales, she is particularly interested in the development of new detector technologies and state-of-the-art statistical methods that are permitting new insights in UHECR research. I would love to be part of solving this long-standing puzzle.”

The 29-year-old researcher has already studied and worked at various international universities and research institutions in Europe. After a degree in physics at Imperial College London, she wrote her master’s thesis during an Erasmus year spent at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Subsequently, she worked for a year at the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. “One of my university tutors had aroused my passion for space research and my interest in detectors”, recounts Capel. She then did a PhD at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Collaboration with data experts

In the summer of 2020, the young scientist came to Munich amid the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic. “It was a bit strange, but I received very good support from my working group”, Capel stresses. She is currently alternating between working from home and the Origins Data Science Lab (ODSL) at the campus in Garching near Munich. With their expertise in the latest analytical methods, algorithms and computer-based tools, the data experts support all the institutes affiliated with ORIGINS with the processing of complex and multidimensional data sets. “Statistical analyses can also be calculated alone”, says Capel. “But it is very important for me and my work to be able to share ideas and discuss with the others.” She has never before been part of such a large and interdisciplinary research community – researchers in the fields of astrophysics, particle physics and nuclear physics collaborate in the cluster. One thing the British scientist particularly appreciates is the way the group members encourage one another. “We work together rather than competing against each other.”

A Nobel laureate is also among her ORIGINS colleagues: Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020. Francesca Capel finds the achievements of the Garching professor inspiring. “The Nobel prize is evidence of the high level at which work takes place here”, she notes. “That motivates me, and it confirms my view that science needs passion.”