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All About... Jo Dunkley

Scientist and storyteller

Our cheat sheet for one of the youngest female astrophysics professors on the planet

Kaila Keen Marketing Associate

From the origins of the universe to women in STEM, Princeton professor and astrophysicist Jo Dunkley is making cosmic waves in the world of astronomy and beyond.

The first person to know the age of the universe

Dunkley and her team were responsible for making the most accurate estimate of how old the universe is. As a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, Jo ran her code using the data from the satellite mission launched by NASA that took the universe’s earliest baby pictures (in its early infancy of 400,000 years old): the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). So how old is the universe? A youthful 14 billion years. 

More interested in looking at space, than going there

Astronomy has moved away from space travel towards humongous telescopes. Lucky for Jo, whose claustrophobia means she has no desire to leave Earth: “The idea of being shut up in an enclosed space horrifies me”.

One of Dunkley’s major projects is The Atacama Cosmology Telescope, located 16,000 feet above sea level in a desert mountain range in Chile. The ACT project aims to shine a light on how the universe came to be, what it’s made of and how fast it’s growing. 

“We have these telescopes that scan the sky, and we turn the data into maps of the sky and extract statistics about them that we can then compare to our theories”.

Uncovering the forgotten heroines of astronomy

“Very often the famous names we know and read about in science are not those of women.”

Despite the restrictions placed on them because of their gender, women have made great strides in astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, part of the women known as the “Harvard Computers”, identified a pattern in stars that was transformational for Edwin Hubble to discover galaxies far beyond our own. Likewise, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovered how stars are formed and Vera Rubin’s work led to the theory of dark matter. 

Almost forgotten, these three scientists changed how we see the universe, laying the foundations for Dunkley’s work and other astronomers to build on.

On a mission to get women into STEM

Only 20 percent of 16 to 18 year old physics students are girls in the UK, and girls are almost three times more likely to study physics if attending an all-girls school. 

Dunkley has been on a mission to take away this unconscious bias that women face in STEM subjects. In 2016, she was recognised for her innovative project to encourage girls studying physics and her research in the cosmic microwave background, winning the Rosalind Franklin Award

Dunkley insists that to make more discoveries about our universe, we need to help inspire females to look to the stars.

Our Universe: An Astronomer's Guide

Most of us have heard of black holes, the Big Bang and galaxies far, far away. But most of us also believe that the universe is too hard to understand, too big to fathom. Enter Dunkley’s new book, Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide

From the basics to strange phenomenons like superclusters, her book takes us through the unfolding history of the universe in an exceptionally readable guide to one of the biggest subjects of them all.

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