Astrophysicist Anna Fribel – ‘Staring is like making radio’

Moderation: Brita Burger

Astrophysicist Anna Frebel investigates the star dust that makes up space and we humans. (Anna Fribel)

Astrophysicist Anna Frebel was 25 years old when she discovered one of the oldest stars in the universe. She quickly rose to become a new star in the world of science. Today, she supports young women scientists.

“Most stars look very boring.” This sentence comes unexpectedly from the mouth of an astrophysicist. But Anna Fribel should know. For many years, her gaze had been regularly wandering the sky for reasons of research.

It’s almost comforting to hear the world add: “Some stars are special.”

Gold, platinum and silver

Anna Fribel is currently analyzing hundreds of celestial bodies for a new research project. “We are investigating the origin of chemical elements,” she says. This doesn’t sound amazing at first, but it gets exciting when the astronomer explains why this is so important:

“With stars marked” – the old Anna Fribel means – “we can see how gold, platinum and silver are made.”

Portrait of astrophysicist Anna Fribel.  (Anna Fribel)Anna Fribel has had a long career: as a doctoral student, she discovered one of the oldest stars in the universe. (Anna Fribel)

With the discovery of one of these distinct, very old stars, Anna Freibel became a star in scientific circles at the age of 25. In 2005, an astrophysicist found one of the oldest stars: more than 13 billion years old, an almost unimaginable age. At the time, Fribel was a PhD student in Australia. The veteran was given a completely unromantic name: “HE 1327-2326”.

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The astrophysicists had already put their star on the “hit list – it sounded a little weird.” Fortunately, Anna Fribel remembers, she dared to take a second look. Only then did “it turns out we found something very special”.

$50,000 for one night

The observation and analysis of the stars is mainly done on the computer. Anna Fribel offers insight:

“We direct starlight as if through a prism and divide it into the colors of the rainbow. This tells us exactly what elements are in this star. The oldest stars contain very little of all the chemical elements. At the time they were there for a short time. The astronomer says: “Formulated and formed after the Big Bang, there weren’t many of these elements.”

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Anna Fribel has been working since 2012 as a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; She is currently a classmate of Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The astronomer was still on her way to doing her research. I got my PhD in Canberra, then went to the United States, first to Texas, then to Massachusetts.

“Getting at the stars is like making a radio.”

Her most notable work is stargazing with a telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert. This sounds like a trip for tourists, but it’s an expensive find. It is said that one night on the large telescope costs $50,000.

“That sounds expensive, of course – it is,” Fribel admits. “There are a lot of electricity costs involved, staff included. But compared to other science experiments, it’s not very expensive. Fortunately, I don’t have to pay for it myself, my university pays for it.”

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Watching the stars in the desert is “a bit like watching the radio,” Anna Freibel says during an interview on a Berlin radio station. “We talk here, then we listen to music again. Then we talk again.

And that’s actually how it works for us. We choose a star, and then watch it for between five minutes and an hour. Then we look at the next stage and decide if it is interesting to us. We want to find this very rare star.”

Handbook for young people

The astrophysicist is currently writing a new book – a kind of handbook for young scientists, and especially for women scientists. The stars don’t play a role here, but they do play out in mundane questions like: What skills and tools do you have to bring to science? How can you be successful in this field?

“No one could answer those questions for me. I stumbled from step to step. That was good for me too. But it wasn’t always good.”


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