New professor Mads Toudal Frandsen wants to develop physics at SDU: »We need to show how important physics is«
Physics is important when we are to solve the challenges of the future. Now, we need to show of the strong physics research and education we have at SDU. That is the wish from Mads Toudal Frandsen, who has recently been appointed professor. Astro- and space physics, biophysics and collaborations with the Faculty of Engineering, the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and the SDU Climate Cluster will open up new opportunities, he believes.
In a few weeks, something will happen that Mads Toudal Frandsen is proud of.
A satellite is sent into space on a SpaceX space shuttle. But it's not just any satellite.
It is a student satellite which is the result of a collaboration between physics students and engineering students at SDU.
The success of the project is largely due to the SDU Galaxy community, which is a network for space research and technology that works across the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Science at SDU.
The space community contributes to physics at SDU being different from other physics programmes in Denmark, Mads Toudal Frandsen, who has just been appointed professor at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy at SDU, believes.
– SDU is the only university in Denmark where we have the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering right next to each other in the same building. It offers huge opportunities for the future, where I see great potential within, among other things, space science and technology, he says.
– The research and student community we have developed in SDU Galaxy can realise that potential, for example within the climate area in collaboration with the SDU Climate Cluster.
As a new professor, Mads Toudal Frandsen has an ambition to further develop the field of space physics.
Here, we can show possible future students why they should choose physics, and what physics can do in collaboration with other disciplines.
– In recent years, we have created a strong physics programme. Now we have to make it more clear. I don't think that physics is clear enough today and I would like to help change that. We need to show how important physics is. We are a small programme, which also offers many advantages for the students, but we are smaller than we should be if you ask me, he says in the interview.
We know that we know almost nothing
Mads Toudal grew up in the small town of Kværndrup in Midtfyn.
His fascination with physics started on an equal footing with a fascination with philosophy; to such an extent that he started studying both subjects when he had to choose an education programme.
– I thought that physics was the basic subject in the world of natural sciences, and that philosophy was the basic subject in the humanistic world, so I studied Physics with a minor in Philosophy. And then I simply became more and more fascinated by physics, says Mads Toudal Frandsen.
During his studies, he came across Francesco Sannino, today a professor of physics at SDU, whom he had as a thesis supervisor at the Niels Bohr Institute.
According to Mads Toudal Frandsen, this was an exciting meeting with Sannino, who he calls an inspiring researcher, and he gives him a large part of the credit for the fact that the research path was the right one for him.
Mads Toudal Frandsen took his PhD at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. After several years as a researcher in Oxford, he became an associate professor at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy at SDU.
It is especially all that we do not know about the world that fascinates him:
– I am fascinated by the fact that we know incredibly little about what is in the universe and how it all fits together. It is a rather unique situation in the history of science to be in. What is very special about the time now is that we know that we know almost nothing, he says.
Closer to dark matter
Mads Toudal Frandsen is particularly interested in dark matter; this mass in the universe that we can't see and don't know much about, but which must exist because it helps hold all large structures such as galaxies and galaxy clusters together.
As a metaphor for dark matter, Mads Toudal Frandsen uses a carousel. If you sat in a carousel that moved much faster than it was built for, the cars would fly apart.
The same should happen with the stars in galaxies, as they move much faster than gravity can hold them together.
But the galaxies don't fall apart.
– Based on those observations and several other independent observations, we conclude that there must be some matter that supplies this lack of gravity, and we call that dark matter. If I were to make a mark with my research, it would be to discover dark matter. But it would be a huge achievement and a huge stroke of luck, which would probably give the Nobel Prize, says Mads Toudal Frandsen.
– So, more realistically, I hope to lift a sliver of the veil and get a little closer to being able to characterise the dark matter at the particle level.
How would one go about getting closer to finding out what dark matter is, I ask.
– It would, among other things, require new observational methods and strategies. For example, new opportunities arise right now when we can use the large radio telescope network called the Event Horizon Telescope, which, among other things, was built to look for black holes, and in which SDU today is actively involved thanks to Assistant Professor Roman Gold, he says and continues:
– Near black holes, there is reason to believe that we have the highest concentrations of dark matter. In the photon rings around supermassive black holes that the Event Horizon telescope has published in recent years, we may also begin to see effects of dark matter.
A glimpse of the answer
When Mads Toudal Frandsen worked as a postdoc at Oxford University, there was a moment when he thought he had come closer to discovering dark matter.
– We were the first to analyse two experiments that both observed the signals we expect from dark matter, and they aligned. This is the requirement for a new discovery in physics. And then things started to go really fast for a period of time.
But then it turned out that one experiment was flawed, and there were also problems with the other.
– So, it was a non-observation. But it was a wild period and a learning I took with me. And it is a situation that gives hope that we will find this dark matter at some point, he says.
We must make physics 'great again'
Now, Mads Toudal Frandsen has been appointed professor, and it is a position he assumes with a certain awe.
– It is a big pat on the back, but above all a big responsibility to contribute to the positive development of research and teaching in physics at SDU, he says.
Here, he expects astrophysics among other things to play a big role. Mads Toudal Frandsen hopes that for some new students it will be a way into the other exciting corners of physics.
When he welcomes new students, it is often astrophysics that they mention when asked what attracted them.
– It is an area that fascinates young people. But even if they do not get to work with precise astrophysics when they finish their education, they will have learned to model and analyse physical data, and they will have gained a lot of skills that are in great demand in the business world, he says.
Another area he would like to highlight is biophysics. With the new joint framework for Odense University Hospital at SDU, Mads Toudal Frandsen hopes that physics at SDU will also become better at clarifying what opportunities there are within biophysics.
– It is necessary if we are to have more young people take the physics route, he emphasises:
– We must make physics 'great again' in the region. There are several high schools on Funen that no longer offer physics at A level. My old high school, Midtfyns High School, for example. It is very sad.
– We live in a time where crises are the new normal. We have a climate crisis, a security crisis and a corona crisis. That is why we need a fundamental scientific understanding to that extent when we have to solve these crises.
Meet the researcher
Mads Toudal Frandsen is a professor at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy. He is particularly interested in dark matter, black holes and the building blocks of the universe. According to Mads Toudal Frandsen himself, in the old days he was a semi-skilled drummer, and he has now persuaded his two children to take up drums in order to live out broken dreams.