UCLA Spotlight

Faculty Research Lecturer studies the stars

  • By Wendy Soderburg
  • Published Oct 20, 2008 8:00 AM

Should Edward L. "Ned" Wright, professor of physics and astronomy, have a difficult time deciding what tie to wear when he delivers the 105th UCLA Faculty Research Lecture, he can always consult the Wand of Randomness.

The wand – a plastic tube filled with dice and topped by a giant, multi-sided die – was created by some of the graduate students who were in his "Order of Magnitude Astrophysics" class years ago. It has a tendency to fall apart, but Wright always fixes it right back up with tape so it can be displayed in his office in the Physics and Astronomy Building.

Wright doesn't use the wand in class, but he does use dice to decide which students he will call upon to answer questions. "I'll pose a question to the students, and then I'll roll the die and say, OK, you – go answer it," he said. "So the students can be sitting there saying, no, I don't know anything about this! Don't call on me!"

On Oct. 28 Wright, sans dice or wand, will deliver the fall Faculty Research Lecture, called "Observing the Origin of the Universe: A Century of Progress in Cosmology."

Faculty Research Lecture Oct. 28

3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28
Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall

To RSVP for the reception immediately following in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, e-mail specialevents@support.ucla.edu or call 310-794-6241 by Monday, Oct. 20.

Or use the web-based invitation.

Cosmology is the study of the universe. "It’s not physics, where you can do an experiment, and if you want to make sure you've got the answer right, you can do the experiment again," Wright said. "With cosmology, you've only got one universe, so you just have to observe it. You can invent different ways of observing it, and then you can calculate based on what we do with the laws of physics and the laboratory.

"So what do we know about the laws of physics that we measure in the laboratory? What's going on in the universe? Does it fit with what we observe? If it does, that's good. If it doesn't, it's a potential problem. Right now it's all consistent, though it doesn't have to be."

Wright's interest in the stars and planets began when he was a youngster growing up in Virginia. He read his way through the 520 section in the public library (astronomy, in the Dewey Decimal System). And Wright built his own telescope when he was in high school.

Between earning a bachelor's degree in physics (1969) and a Ph.D. in astronomy (1976) from Harvard University, Wright spent a year with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where he boarded ships to Portugal, England and Hawaii to study underwater sound.

As a doctoral student at Harvard, Wright worked on a 4,000-pound infrared telescope that he and his colleagues would set aloft – 20 miles into the air – on an unmanned stratospheric balloon. "That's high enough so that it can actually look at infrared wavelengths that are normally blocked by the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere," said Wright, who based his Ph.D. dissertation on the research.

In 1982, Wright came to UCLA as a professor in the physics and astronomy department. On his office wall is a photo of the COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) science working group, led by George F. Smoot and John C. Mather, of which Wright was a member. Smoot and Mather won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for their collaborative work on understanding the Big Bang. A second photo, taken at the Nobel banquet, shows Wright, Smoot and Mather in white tie and tails.

"No, I didn't get to meet the king of Sweden," Wright said, laughing. "I had dinner with the king and 1,600 of his closest friends."