A Breakthrough Theory on Black Holes Proves a Scientific Discovery

Published: February 07, 2020

Queensborough Physicist Dr. Jillian Bellovary was seated in her office studying computer simulations of dwarf galaxies.

Pointing to a galaxy on the screen, Bellovary explained what she found a few years ago. “This black hole is in the center of a dwarf galaxy. As this galaxy moved closer to another, larger galaxy (closer meaning a few thousand light years), the galaxies merged and, instead of the black hole returning to the center, it orbited around the edge. Nobody expected that.”

Her cosmological predictions that black holes may often be off-center in dwarf galaxies due to the way galaxies interact, may change how scientists look for black holes in dwarf galaxies in the future.

“Jillian’s work is important as this is the way we move forward in physics,” said David H. Lieberman, Professor and Chairperson, Physics. “We think we have an idea about how nature works and make predictions based on experiments. When these experiments confirm our predictions, in this case predictions that are totally unexpected, it gives us the confidence that we are heading in the right direction.”

Bellovary’s breakthrough predictions confirmed Montana State University astrophysicist Amy Reines’s research which has revealed more than a dozen massive black holes in dwarf galaxies that were previously considered too small to host them.

 “Amy is an observer that looks through telescopes at actual objects in space,” said Bellovary, who is also a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History. “I am a theorist and use computer simulations, something that exists only in a computer and is a creative model of what the real world is like. I measure gravity and study gas dynamics to describe the universe through mathematical equations.”

A few years ago, she spoke with Reines to see if her new data showed hints of black holes in dwarf galaxies but Reines replied that, ‘nothing central so we do not believe it is there.’

“Wait!” said Bellovary. “Look more closely. If you see something that isn’t in the center it actually may be what you’re looking for, just not where you’d expect to find it.”

Bellovary emphasizes this truism with her students as well. 

Kathryn Chafla, a 21 year-old student studying engineering science at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut participated in Queensborough’s National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) summer program.  She, along with students from other area community colleges, studied at the Museum under the guidance of Bellovary.

“The summer REU helped me to learn new programs, give presentations, and have opportunities to interact with students and faculty and improve my English. I was really happy to see how Queensborough supports students from different backgrounds with different levels of experience.”

Kathryn, who will transfer to the University of Connecticut in the fall to study electrical engineering, continued, “Jillian helped us a lot. She challenged us and supported us at the same time.”

Bellovary emphasized that her students helped her figure out that black holes are off center and why. “They basically traced history backwards from beginning of time to present day—simulations are neat that way.”

“What’s so important about the NSF REU is that students have the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas. This is how they develop an identity as a scientist; to conduct research; and ultimately become a scientist.”

“We know so little about the universe,” said Bellovary. “So when discoveries like this are made it’s exciting because it tells more of the story of black holes and therefore the history of the galaxy and that could lead to the big question--Why are we here?”



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