Meet Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil - The Astrophysicist Who Discovered a Special Type of Galaxy

You definitely are living your dream when some of the stars that fascinated you as a kid are now named after you.

It all began when Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil - a Turkish astrophysicist was asked to prepare an assignment on some famous personality. She was confused and asked her sister to suggest a name.

In return, she suggested Einstein - the cleverest man in the world. Since then, the passion for astrophysics never took a back seat. She started reading more about physics and got literally obsessed with understanding the cosmos.

"How is it possible not to fall in love with the stars? I find it quite difficult not to be curious about the Universe, about the Milky Way and how everything got together" said Mutlu-Pakdil. Her growing interest along with the quest of learning more made her love the job tremendously.

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She works as a postdoctoral astrophysics research associate with The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory - one of the world's premier astronomy facilities.

So, why are we talking about her today? Has she made some significant discovery in astronomy? Well, we'll know this for sure, but, before we proceed, let's take a small tour in the world of galaxies.

A sneak-peak in the world of galaxies

Initially, it was perceived that there is only one galaxy i.e. Milky Way, but the evidence found in 1924 confirmed that our galaxy is not alone. Edwin Hubble discovered some faint variable stars which turned out to be cepheids.

With reliable indicators, Hubble further measured the distances and was able to resolve the confusion of what those several stars in the bright spiral-shaped nebulae were. With the intense calculations, he found out that the Andromeda galaxy was about 900,000 light-years away from us.

Today, we know that it is actually slightly more than twice the distance as Hubble's first estimate, but his conclusion about its nature is true and remains unchanged even today.

Eventually, a new era had begun in the study of the Universe. In fact, a new scientific field - extragalactic astronomy came into existence.

Fast forward to today and we find that there are two trillion galaxies in the Universe. Though, this figure is quite different from the estimate of Hubble eXtreme Deep Field image which was 176 billion.

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The difference here simply means that still there are 90% of galaxies in the Universe which are yet to be detected by the observatories.

More and more research and analysis are taking place where the astrophysics studies are revealing the formation of massive galaxies and that they are relatively close to us - i.e. at a distance of two to four billion light-years. These galaxies are perceived to be as young as 100 million years and as old as one billion years.

With different intellectual astrophysicists around, such discoveries will never end. One such proof of their learning and curiosity has recently been given by Mutlu-Pakdil while discovering a special type of galaxy.

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Burçin's Galaxy - What's Unusual About It?

Mutlu-Pakdil with her team noticed a galaxy - PGC100714. At first, they mistook it to be the Hoag-type galaxy (the first ring galaxy).  But, digging deeper, they found it to be an altogether different galaxy - a discovery that they were pretty excited about.

PGC100714 Galaxy
Source: NASA – GALEX/Wikimedia Commons

With all the zest, she started researching intensely and the findings at every stage amazed her. All that she understood was that the galaxy was not usual and it surely had some secrets in-stored.

Usually, the galaxies are seen as spirals, like our very own Milky Way. Yet, there are those rare galaxies - say about one in a thousand that look different as a small nucleus of stars having an outer ring some distance away.

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But, the Burçin's Galaxy was one step further!

Through extensive imaging and analysis, our astrophysicist Mutlu-Pakdil found that, unlike Hoag's Object, this newly found galaxy has two rings with no visible materials attached to them. 

It is a phenomenon that no one had ever seen before!

The double-ringed elliptical galaxy had been observed for the very first time and is 359 million light years away.

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There's a lot of mystery attached to it. How did such an unusual thing form in the first place? If the red central core in the Hoag-type galaxies is older than the blue outer ring, why it's not the same with Burçin's Galaxy?  

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Well, astrophysics research still needs to be more intense.

Further investigations to solve the mystery

Once this mysterious galaxy was spotted, Mutlu-Pakdil and her team began assessing it in different ways! One of these assessments included monitoring the galaxy through Irénéé du Pont two-meter telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

They have recently captured infrared images that reveal that the components of Burçin's Galaxy have different histories. Some parts are known to be considerably older than the others.

The red inner ring depicts the existence of older stars, whereas the blue outer ring reveals the formation of new stars.

However, beyond this, the unique qualities of the Burçin's Galaxy are still a mystery. Mutlu-Pakdil says that it is really important to find such rare objects. She further added, "We are trying to create a complete picture of how the Universe works. These peculiar systems challenge our understanding. So far, we don't have any theory that can explain the existence of this particular object, so we still have a lot to learn.”

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Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil continues to challenge the norms of Science

Mutlu-Pakdil and her team are still engrossed in researching the intriguing object with the hope that someday they'll surely solve the mystery. Meanwhile, she has gained the acclamation for her discovery worldwide.

Her success can be known simply by knowing the fact that she is the one among the 20 changemakers invited to TED 2018 from all across the world.

Already been approached by a publisher, you can expect a book written by her in the near future that states all her significant life experiences as an astrophysicist.

All she hopes that her discovery and her story will turn out to be an inspiration for the students who are actively interested in diving deeper in the world of astrophysics.

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Isn't that a commendable success?

After all, she follows one simple rule of life - you might not get the result you want on the very first attempt. Every time you fail, instead of quitting, simply get up and try again.

Eventually, you are going to succeed.