Lab scientist takes a leap in the dark

Michael Schneider sitting at desk (Download Image)

With the help of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), Lab scientist Michael Schneider plans to see more stars and galaxies than ever before, thanks to a camera on the telescope that will create movies of the entire sky every three nights. Photo by Kate Hunts/LLNL.

He could have been a professional trombone player in a jazz ensemble or a chef specializing in New Mexican cuisine.


However, Michael Schneider took a very different path. He became an explorer looking for the meaning of the universe in the form of dark energy.


With the help of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), due to come online in 2019, he plans to see more stars and galaxies than ever before, thanks to a camera on the telescope that will create movies of the entire sky every three nights.


"I was interested in what everything is made of and how the universe began," said Schneider, an astrophysics postdoc.  


Schneider, 38, is doing that as he serves as the principal investigator for science research for LSST. His work in dark energy has earned him a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science 2017 Early Career Research award.


This year, DOE Office of Science selected 59 scientists from across the nation – including 21 from DOE's national laboratories and 38 from U.S. universities – to receive significant funding for research as part of DOE's Early Career Research Program. The effort, now in its eighth year, is designed to bolster the nation's scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work.

Under the program, researchers based at DOE national laboratories receive grants of $500,000 per year to cover year-round salary plus research expenses. The research grants are planned for five years. Schneider plans to use the funding for his dark energy quest.

Approximately 75 percent of the universe is made up of dark energy. Scientists established the existence of dark energy by measuring supernovae going off and found that they were dimmer than they should be, inferring that the universe is expanding and accelerating at a constant rate. There are currently two theories that could point to the origins of dark energy. According to the vacuum energy hypothesis, space is pervaded by a constant energy density that originates as a new fundamental physical constant or from quantum mechanics. Alternatively, Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, may require modifications on cosmological scales.


"When we figure out what dark energy is, it’s possible we’ll understand something new about the Big Bang. In fact, we may find out that we are just one of many universes," Schneider said.


A primary future approach in the search for dark energy involves gravitational lensing, which traces mass structure versus cosmic time and could serve as a dark energy probe. Gravitational lensing causes a magnification and distortion of a background galaxy by mass along the line of sight.

By using the billion-pixel camera on LSST, Schneider will be able to see a map of the entire visible sky in just three days. "We almost know nothing about dark energy," he said." We know we can make the measurements and look further back in the universe."


The son of a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist father and computer scientist mother, Schneider’s path to astrophysics started at about the age of 10, when he read Stephen Hawking’s "A Brief History of Time." From there he read everything that Isaac Asimov ever wrote and was a fan of Arthur Clarke as well. In fact, he wrote an essay in seventh grade on theoretical physics.

But being a jazz trombonist as well, Schneider started off as a music major in college, but soon found that if you graduate with a music degree "you’ll never make it." He said all the music colleagues he had that started as music majors usually left before they graduated and joined bands. In fact, at one point, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis came to one of his music class performances and pulled a few students out of the class to play with his band. Unfortunately, Schneider wasn’t one of them.


Off he went to become a physics major. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign, his master’s degree from Rutgers University and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.


Born and raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Schneider learned to cook at young age, as his mother traveled frequently as an LANL computer scientist and frankly, he said, his father wasn’t that great a cook.


In his spare time, when with his two sons and wife in Danville, he likes to cook New Mexican fare, including the renowned hatch green chile dishes and a traditional New Mexico favorite, sopapillas.