The University of Tokyo’s Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) aims to answer the fundamental questions about the universe: where did it come from, why do we exist in it, and what is its future? But the institute’s mission is also to inspire the next generation of researchers to take up that challenge. This requires a supportive environment that attracts the brightest minds from around the world and allows them to focus on their research.
Breaking down barriers
At the Kavli IPMU, the University of Tokyo is creating a global space without barriers: without barriers to access, barriers to communication, or barriers to research. Even so, or perhaps as a result, entry is highly competitive. The common language of the Kavli IPMU is English, facilitating interaction within the Institute, and all researchers are required to spend at least one month each year overseas on research, building networks with other institutes around the world.
“Our aim is to create a space in which researchers can focus on research alone, a space that stimulates interaction and the exchange of ideas both internally and globally,” says Mr. Kenya Ukawa of the International Relations Section.
The University of Tokyo established the IPMU in 2007 under the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s World Premier International Research Center Initiative. Five years later, it had already achieved its objective of becoming a world-class research center when the Kavli Foundation made it Japan’s first and the world’s sixteenth Kavli Institute. The Kavli Foundation also oversees the highly regarded Kavli Prize awarded to researchers in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.
Located at the Kashiwa Campus an hour northeast of Tokyo, the Kavli IPMU building has been designed around the concept of academic dialog. At its heart is Piazza Fujiwara, surrounded by a spiral floor that ensures that everyone, in all 77 offices over three stories, is actually on the same level (Figure 1). Since its completion in 2010, the building has already received two prestigious Japanese awards for architecture — from the Architectural Institute of Japan in 2011, and the Building Contractor Society in 2012.
Tea, biscuits and supernovae
At precisely 3pm every day, bells ring throughout the Institute and all the researchers slowly trickle into Piazza Fujiwara for teatime. This compulsory break is not just for tea and biscuits, but a time to catch up with colleagues, for sparking conversations and new ideas, or to discuss recent research.
For Project Researcher Anupreeta More, who works on gravitational lensing and dark matter, and her husband, Project Assistant Professor Surhud More, who works on the connection between galaxies and dark matter, teatime sparked a whole new research collaboration.
During one teatime discussion, former Kavli IPMU researcher Robert Quimby mentioned a new paper from a Harvard research group reporting the discovery of the unusually bright supernova PS1-10afx, observed in 2010. The paper suggested that it was a new type of supernova. “We thought that PS1-10afx was more likely to be a gravitationally-lensed supernova rather than a new type of superluminuous supernova. Hence, we set out to acquire more data to test this hypothesis. If true, this would be the first strongly-lensed supernova detected,” recounts Anupreeta More. If it was a strongly-lensed supernova, it had the potential to greatly advance knowledge of the universe.
To their surprise, their suggestion was met with skepticism. The team redoubled their efforts. Gathering more observational data, they demonstrated without doubt that a smaller galaxy was located between PS1-10afx and the Earth. The supernova, which appeared thirty times brighter than an ordinary type Ia supernova considered a ‘standard candle’, is therefore most likely strongly lensed.. The result of this research was published in Science in April 2014 (Figure 2).
But the group aren’t finished yet. To be absolutely sure, they need more data. The next step in their research is to get further confirmation of the presence of the lensing galaxy and measure its mass and mass distribution more accurately, for which they need a direct, high resolution image of the galaxy itself. This will require time on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which they are now trying to obtain. Knowing the accurate mass of the lens galaxy means that the team will also be able to learn more about the mass and distribution of dark matter based on the way it lenses light coming from a distant background source –like the light coming from the supernova and its host galaxy. With more lenses, they would then be able to map the distribution of dark matter in the universe.
Their research, led by Quimby, has also shown that researchers need to revise their predictions for strongly lensed supernovae. Usually, a gravitationally-lensed source appears as multiple images in the data captured by a telescope. However, since it is difficult to discern small separation images in this low resolution data, researchers did not consider them in model predictions. With the new method described in their work, it should be possible to find many more strongly lensed supernovae with such small image separations e.g. using the data from the Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) survey being carried out at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan Subaru Telescope in Hawai’i.
Grounded support (for those who need to keep their heads in the clouds)
The Mores say their transition from the United States to Japan went smoothly despite never having lived in Japan before or being particularly fluent in the language. They attribute this to the support the Kavli IPMU provides its researchers to ensure that they can fully participate in academic life in Japan.
“In terms of science we don’t feel isolated at all,” says Surhud More.
Kenya Ukawa describes the breadth of support services at the Kavli IPMU. “By providing funding for every researcher, there is no need to spend time on grant applications and new researchers can hit the ground running. Obviously we also encourage researchers to apply for funding and support is provided for those who do.” An internal support team provides assistance with on-campus and off-campus needs, while an external provider has a support desk located within the institute, to assist with other off-campus needs, so that researchers can spend more time focusing on their work (Figure 3).
Within the institute, Kenya Ukawa says face-to-face consultation is key in building trust. He and seven other staff provide researchers with support for issues such as employment contracts, insurance, taxes, house contracts or even buying new laboratory equipment.
In addition, the Japan International Science and Technology Exchange Center (JISTEC) provides outside support for researchers, helping researchers such as the Mores with resident registration at city hall, phone contracts, and even finding an obstetrician for Anupreeta More when the couple were having a baby. In cooperation with JISTEC and AXA Assistance Japan, helplines that can provide assistance with any matters whatsoever are offered, and in case of emergency researchers have a number to call 24 hours a day.
“Mentally, I don’t feel like, ‘something’s going to happen and I don’t know what to do’,” says Surhud More. “You know there is always someone there.”
Inspiring new spaces for learning
The Mores particularly enjoyed the extensive outreach in which they could engage at the University of Chicago prior to coming to the Kavli IPMU. Anupreeta More had spent a significant amount of time speaking to people about her work and raising awareness of her field through monthly events at the local planetarium. But coming to Japan has presented a problem because she cannot speak Japanese well enough to communicate with the local community.
This language barrier is a particular challenge for universities in East Asia, already physically isolated from North America and Europe.
However, with the Kavli IPMU’s support, Anupreeta More has been able to reach out to a broader audience by realizing a citizen science project called Space Warps (spacewarps.org) that she proposed while in Chicago (Figure 4). Research on the distribution of dark matter throughout the universe requires finding a large sample of gravitational lenses, which must be massive objects such as galaxies or galaxy clusters. Although there should be thousands of such lenses out there, finding them is not easy as they are hidden amongst millions of galaxies in images captured by astronomers.
The easiest way to find these lenses is to use a computer algorithm to detect them, and Anupreeta More has developed a program to do this, but the images are highly complex and the algorithm isn’t perfect. On the Space Warps website, participants are presented with potential gravitational lenses selected by the algorithm, and have to decide whether each is a lens. The project is now complete, and over 50,000 participants classified more than eight million items. “All of these participants have contributed directly to improving our understanding of the universe, and several non-experts from all over the world have put in dedicated effort to make this project possible,” says Anupreeta More.
By making it easy for researchers to get on with their research, ensuring that they are part of a global community of scientists, and facilitating interaction with society, the Kavli IPMU is fulfilling its mission to inspire young researchers to take up the challenge of answering the big questions: where did the universe come from, why do we exist in it, and what is its future?
Source: University of Tokyo, interview/text: Motoko Kakubayashi.