High-performance environment

March 18, 2024

Enlarge LMU student Ralf Konietzka moved to Harvard University to write his PhD thesis. | © Ralf Konietzka / Harvard University What created the oscillating gas structure? Now he started his PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the world’s leading universities. Ralf Konietzka summarized his latest publication in an outreach video. 1:35 Minuten | 11 Mar 2024 | ©Harvard University

When Ralf Konietzka is asked to explain his research, he turns into a storyteller. He tells all about exploding stars and dark matter, about the influence of galactic weather on the solar system, and about his favorite topic of all – a galactic wave of gas and dust that crossed the path of the sun 13 million years ago and might even have hit the Earth at one time.
Konietzka has just published a major paper on this subject in the journal Nature. His research demonstrates that a huge structure of gas and dust in our Milky Way known as the Radcliffe Wave oscillates through the Galactic plane like a traveling wave, and that the young stars within it move up and down over the course of millions of years, somewhat like sports fans doing “the wave” in a stadium. At the same time, the wave is slowly drifting away from the center of the galaxy. Konietzka has given numerous interviews about the paper, a new task for the young physicist, who moved from the LMU to Harvard University just six months ago to write his PhD thesis at the world-famous American university.

LMU student Ralf Konietzka moved to Harvard University to write his PhD thesis. | © Ralf Konietzka / Harvard University

What created the oscillating gas structure?

Ralf Konietzka is an ambitious doctoral student. He wants to create change, he says. When choosing a university years ago, he picked the LMU as it combines cutting-edge research in both theoretical physics and astrophysics. Now he started his PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the world’s leading universities. “I am driven by the question of what caused this oscillating gas structure,” says Konietzka. “Does the same mechanism that created the Radcliffe Wave occur not only near our sun, but also in other parts of the Milky Way? Or even in other galaxies?”

Konietzka started collaborating with the Center for Astrophysics in Harvard already during his Master's thesis. “The door to studying astrophysics was opened for me through the support of my mentor and later supervisor Prof. Andreas Burkert,” recalls Konietzka. “Under his guidance, I was able to conduct exactly the astrophysical research I wanted and to lay the foundations for my future scientific work.” And it was Burkert who recommended him to colleagues at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University. While still a student at LMU in 2022 Konietzka went to Harvard for a semester abroad, laying the groundwork for his PhD, which he began in September 2023.

“The support from these programs was very important for me”

The productivity of such ties is partly due to two programs which supported Konietzka during his time in Munich: the elite master’s course Theoretical and Mathematical Physics (TMP) at LMU and the Max Weber Program, which supports outstanding students at Bavarian universities, providing them financial support along with academic and personal guidance and mentoring.

“The support from these programs was very important for me,” says Konietzka. “The Max Weber Program enabled me to get in touch with Andreas Burkert early on in my studies. These connections are more important than the financial support.” Professor Andreas Burkert, Chair of Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics at LMU, supervised Konietzka’s master’s thesis and was also a mentor in the Max Weber Program. “The program helps extremely talented people who have a broad range of interests,” says Burkert. “The scholars are always keen to get to know the best research groups in their field worldwide. Ralf told me that he wanted to go to Harvard.” So Burkert tried to open doors for him. In the program, “you are in a bubble with highly talented students,” says Konietzka. “That’s a high-performance environment.”

Ralf Konietzka during a lecture at Harvard University

© Ralf Konietzka / Harvard University

The Milky Way as a dynamic system

Andreas Burkert is convinced there is huge potential in Konietzka’s research field: “What Ralf is doing will play a very important role in the future. We’re developing a more complex model of the universe. We’re learning to see galaxies as highly dynamic structures, and not just as flat disks with spiral arms.” Extremely precise data from the ESA satellite Gaia is helping scientists record the motions of millions of stars in six dimensions – measuring both their position in the universe and their movement.

Konietzka is passionate about communicating current research progress to a wider audience. This is not only part of his PhD program and the accompanying lectures, in which research is very often incorporated. For the Nature paper, he took particular care to present the results – the Radcliffe Wave and its oscillation in the spiral arm of the Milky Way – in a clear yet scientifically correct way.

It is important, he emphasizes, to convey astronomical research to people who do not study stars, gas clouds, and dark matter on a daily basis by presenting scientific results in a way that is accessible to everyone. “With the visualizations published alongside the paper, you can not only discover brand-new scientific results yourself, but also explore them interactively,” explains Konietzka. On top of this, he summarized his latest publication in an outreach video.

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Ralf Konietzka summarized his latest publication in an outreach video.

1:35 Minuten | 11 Mar 2024 | ©Harvard University

"Broadening this view is what drives me"

At such moments Konietzka sounds more like an experienced researcher than a young PhD student. He discusses the progress in his field in recent years and how quickly our picture of the universe has changed in his own lifetime. “In kindergarten, I learned that there are planets,” he recounts. “At high school, I was taught that these planets orbit the Sun due to the force of gravity. And finally, at LMU, I was able to look further out to see what the universe looks like beyond our solar system, with the Radcliffe Wave as a gigantic structure in our Milky Way forming the backbone of our local spiral arm. Now, through my own research, we see that the wave is oscillating and drifting away from the center of our galaxy. My perspective has been constantly moving outward, and broadening this view is what drives me.”

In this spirit, the researchers are now trying to figure out how the Milky Way works in detail as a dynamic system. Thanks to the high-resolution datasets from the Gaia satellite, it is possible today to map the Milky Way in 3D for the first time. Konietzka is planning to further strengthen the cooperation between Harvard and Professor Andreas Burkert at LMU. “Our strengths here at Harvard and at the LMU complement each other perfectly,” says Konietzka. The young physicist aspires to learn additional statistical and computational methods in order to apply them on the latest datasets, while incorporating the scientific knowledge he acquired during his studies at LMU. When asked whether he wanted to return to Germany after his PhD, he leaves the question open and laughs.