Rene Breton: Stellar Cannibalism and Black Widow Pulsars

Rene Breton received his PhD in Physics from McGill University, Canada, in 2009. He is a Reader in astrophysics at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics and Director of Research at the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester. He currently holds a prestigious European Research Council Starter Grant for the study of ‘spider binary pulsars’. His main research interests revolve around the study of pulsars, which he uses to attempt to understand matter under extreme density, gravity and magnetic fields. Some of his past work enabled us to test ‘geodetic spin precession’ – a phenomenon predicted to exist in General Relativity – for the first time in the strong gravity environment. Rene also has a keen interest for science communication. He co-funded Pulsar Hunters, a citizen science project seeking help from volunteers to find new pulsars. He recently started applying his data analysis skills for research in the area of agriculture and trying to map the spread of invasive plants using satellite imaging.

Talk: Stellar Cannibalism and Black Widow Pulsars

Black widow spiders are notoriously famous for their powerful venom, but also for the fact that females of this species allegedly display cannibalistic behaviours and eat their male partners after mating. A similar type of deadly interaction is known to exist in astronomy and involves a particular type of stars which is nicknamed after the infamous spiders. Stellar black widows are pulsars — the very compact and rapidly rotating leftovers of exploded massive stars — which are known to pray upon their small stellar companions. In these systems, the unfortunate stellar partners are being gradually destroyed by the powerful energy produced by the pulsars. Their study offers us with a unique opportunity to probe some of the most extreme physics in our Universe, ranging from matter denser than atoms to the lethal production of gamma-ray radiation.

Dot Talks, Mission Control Friday 2019

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