Understanding our place within the universe


Brian Nord first fell in love with physics when he was a young person growing up in Wisconsin. His highschool physics program wasn’t exceptional, and he sometimes struggled to maintain up with class material, but those difficulties did nothing to dampen his interest in the topic. Along with the principal curriculum, students were encouraged to independently study topics they found interesting, and Nord quickly developed a fascination with the cosmos. “A touchstone that I often come back to is space,” he says. “The mystery of traveling in it and seeing what’s at the sting.”

Nord was an avid reader of comic books, and astrophysics appealed to his desire to change into an element of something greater. “There at all times appeared to be something special about having this kinship with the universe around you,” he recalls. “I at all times thought it might be cool if I could have that deep connection to physics.”

Nord began to cultivate that connection as an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University. After graduating with a BA in physics, he went on to check on the University of Michigan, where he earned an MS and PhD in the identical field. By this point, he was already considering big, but he desired to think even greater. This desire for a more comprehensive understanding of the universe led him away from astrophysics and toward the more expansive field of cosmology. “Cosmology deals with the entire kit and caboodle, the entire shebang,” he explains. “Our biggest questions are concerning the origin and the fate of the universe.”

Dark mysteries

Nord was particularly concerned about parts of the universe that may’t be observed through traditional means. Evidence suggests that dark matter makes up nearly all of mass within the universe and provides most of its gravity, but its nature largely stays within the realm of hypothesis and speculation. It doesn’t absorb, reflect, or emit any style of electromagnetic radiation, which makes it nearly inconceivable for scientists to detect. But while dark matter provides gravity to drag the universe together, an equally mysterious force — dark energy — is pulling it apart. “We all know even less about dark energy than we do about dark matter,” Nord explains.

For the past 15 years, Nord has been attempting to shut that gap in our knowledge. A part of his work focuses on the statistical modeling of galaxy clusters and their ability to distort and magnify light because it travels through the cosmos. This effect, which is generally known as strong gravitational lensing, is a great tool for detecting the influence of dark matter on gravity and for measuring how dark energy affects the expansion rate of the universe.

After earning his PhD, Nord remained on the University of Michigan to proceed his research as a part of a postdoctoral fellowship. He currently holds a position on the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and is a senior member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics on the University of Chicago. He continues to research questions on the origin and destiny of the universe, but his newer work has also focused on improving the ways by which we make scientific discoveries.

AI powerup

In terms of addressing big questions on the character of the cosmos, Nord has consistently run into one major problem: although his mastery of physics can sometimes make him feel like a superhero, he’s only human, and humans aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, adapt slowly to latest information, and take an extended time to get things done.

The answer, Nord argues, is to transcend the human, into the realm of algorithms and models. As a part of Fermilab’s Artificial Intelligence Project, he spends his days teaching machines the right way to analyze cosmological data, a task for which they’re higher suited than most human scientists. “Artificial intelligence may give us models which can be more flexible than what we are able to create ourselves with pen and paper,” Nord explains. “In loads of cases, it does higher than humans do.”

Nord is continuous this research at MIT as a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Visiting Scholars and Professors Program. Earlier this yr, he joined the Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS), with Jesse Thaler within the Department of Physics and Center for Theoretical Physics (CTP) as his faculty host. Thaler is the director of the National Science Foundation’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions (IAIFI). Since arriving on campus, Nord has focused his efforts on exploring the potential of AI to design latest scientific experiments and instruments. These processes ordinarily take an infinite period of time, he explains, but AI could rapidly speed up them. “Could we design the subsequent particle collider or the subsequent telescope in lower than five years, as an alternative of 30?” he wonders.

But when Nord has learned anything from the comics of his youth, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility. AI is an incredible scientific asset, but it could actually even be used for more nefarious purposes. The identical computer algorithms that might construct the subsequent particle collider also underlie things like facial recognition software and the chance assessment tools that inform sentencing decisions in criminal court. A lot of these algorithms are deeply biased against people of color. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Nord explains. “Because if [AI] works higher for science, it really works higher for facial recognition. So, I’m working against myself.”

Culture change superpowers

Lately, Nord has attempted to develop methods to make the appliance of AI more ethical, and his work has focused on the broad intersections between ethics, justice, and scientific discovery. His efforts to combat racism in STEM have established him as a pacesetter within the movement to handle inequities and oppression in academic and research environments. In June of 2020, he collaborated with members of Particles for Justice — a bunch that boasts MIT professors Daniel Harlow and Tracy Slatyer, in addition to former MLK Visiting Scholar and CTP researcher Chanda Prescod-Weinstein — to create the tutorial Strike for Black Lives. The strike, which emerged as a response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and plenty of others, called on the tutorial community to take a stand against anti-Black racism.

Nord can also be the co-author of Black Light, a curriculum for learning about Black experiences, and the co-founder of Change Now, which produced a listing of calls for motion to make a more just laboratory environment at Fermilab. Because the co-founder of Deep Skies, he also strives to foster justice-oriented research communities freed from traditional hierarchies and oppressive power structures. “The essential idea is just humanity over productivity,” he explains.

This work has led Nord to reconsider what motivated him to pursue a profession in physics in the primary place. When he first discovered his passion for the topic as a young person, he knew he wanted to make use of physics to assist people, but he wasn’t sure how. “I used to be considering I’d make some technology that can save lives, and I still hope to do this,” he says. “But I feel perhaps more of my direct impact, at the least on this stage of my profession, is in trying to alter the culture.”

Physics may not have granted Nord flight or X-ray vision — not yet, at the least. But over the course of his long profession, he has discovered a more substantial power. “If I can understand the universe,” he says, “perhaps that can help me understand myself and my place on this planet and our place as humanity.”


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