Pompey boffin bags €1.3m off EU for dark matter research – shame a no-deal Brexit looks more and more likely

Study to decode the universe's first seconds, but crashing out of bloc may be a problem

A University of Portsmouth researcher has won a €1.3m grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to continue his investigation into dark matter and its role in the universe's first seconds of existence.

Dr Florian Beutler works at the university's Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation. The money will fund his experiments on the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) and the European Space Agency mission Euclid.

Dr Beutler said: "The main focus of this research is to learn about what is driving the evolution of the universe today (dark energy) as well as what drove the evolution of the universe in the first second of its existence (inflation).

"I will use the distribution of galaxies to measure the expansion rate of the universe, which can teach us about the nature of dark energy. I will also use these datasets to study the very early universe, to test theories of inflation. Inflation describes an early expansionary phase of the universe, which is essential for our current cosmological models since inflation is setting the seeds for later galaxy formation."

Beutler told The Reg that the first stage of the project was collecting new data: "Within the DESI collaboration, we will use a telescope in Arizona to collect the positions of about 30-40 million galaxies. The distribution of galaxies contains information about the expansion of the universe."

For example, if there is more dark energy in the universe, the universe will expand faster, which makes the universe as a whole less dense.

"Or if General Relativity is not correct and the gravitational force on the scale of the universe is different from what we measure in the solar system we would be able to pick up that difference by studying the distribution of galaxies."

The researchers can also measure the neutrino mass, which make up a small portion of the matter of the universe. However, as they have large velocities, they don't contribute to the matter clustering. By increasing the neutrino mass, the universe as a whole looks less clustered, the boffin told us.

"This way we should be able to measure the neutrino mass which is unknown up to now. DESI is expected to deliver a detection of the neutrino mass, which is very exciting since it means that we will be able to use the universe as a whole to contribute a fundamental parameter to the standard model of particle physics," said Beutler.

"Another aspect is inflation. Inflation represents an early expansionary phase of the universe (within the first second of the universe existence). Inflation is part of the standard model of cosmology, but very poorly understood. It is assumed to be driven by a scalar field (the Higgs field is another scalar field we know of, but inflation acts on a very different energy scale). I am searching for remnants of this inflationary period, which might tell us about the physical processes which set the initial conditions of our universe," he added.

Beutler is also working on the ESA Euclid mission, which is expected to make "similar measurements using a satellite. From space, it is possible to avoid many of the difficulties which DESI will face caused by absorption in the atmosphere".

The €1.3m funding will pay for three postdoc researchers and a PhD student to join Buetler's team.

The project will analyse the distribution of galaxies using the University of Portsmouth's own small supercomputer, but the bulk of the number crunching for the DESI analysis will be done at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing supercomputer facility.

The Euclid analysis will be handled by the computing facilities distributed over the different member countries.

The money is part of the EU's Horizon 2020 programme. The ERC has a budget of €13bn for 2014 to 2020 and Horizon 2020 is spending €80bn on research and innovation over the same period. It is open to businesses and other organisations as well as university researchers. So far the UK has won 14 per cent of agreed grants.

Beutler's boss, Professor David Wands, said ERC money had been very successful in supporting the UK's research and helping to raise the international standing of the Institute of Cosmology.

But a no-deal Brexit could still put a spanner in the works.

Leaving the EU with no deal may put the kibosh on the UK's involvement in Horizon 2020. Although the UK government has promised to match any funding gained before Brexit, academics still worry about the details and how quickly and easily they will be able to draw down funds.

The government has set up a portal for Horizon 2020 award-winners to register with. They will then be contacted by UK Research and Innovation and told what steps they have to take to access the funds if the UK leaves without a deal. ®

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