Eyes on the stars

MU physicist’s work focuses on stardust
Wednesday, June 22, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:50 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

From the age of 5, Angela Speck has had her head in the clouds — actually more like 240 miles above the clouds. She wanted to be an astronaut, orbiting the Earth studying the closest reaches of space.

The childhood dream influenced Speck through her undergraduate years at Queen Mary, University of London, where she studied physics.

“In order to do what I wanted to do, I had to do physics,” she said.

Speck, an assistant professor of physics at MU, has spent almost 10 years studying stardust, solid material created by cooled gases and other materials shed by dying stars.

Speck’s most recent research, which she presented three weeks ago at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Minneapolis, looked into the formation of stardust around carbon stars. Knowing more about stardust, she said, means knowing more about the planets, stars and meteorites it ultimately forms.

“Basically, you have to make dust,” she said. “Then the dust actually clumps up. Then you make bigger clumps of dust, and then those stick together and you make pebbles, and then those stick together and you make rocks, and so on until you have a planet. So, by understanding how dust forms, you’re understanding that very first step.”

Speck, who came to MU three years ago, studies stardust created by dying stars — stars that have run out of hydrogen, swelling to 100 times their original size or more.

Stardust is formed in two dramatically different ways. In most cases, the enlarged star will start to pulsate, releasing gas into space. When the gas is released, it starts to cool and solidifies into small particles of dust. Speck said this is what our sun will do when it starts to run low on hydrogen.

Larger stars, Speck said, will explode, spreading gases and material everywhere. After the debris cools, it will begin the process of forming planets.

Speck, 34, wasn’t always interested in the secret life of stardust. After receiving her undergraduate degree in astrophysics, she took a three-year break from school and worked in fairly unscientific jobs — bar manager, housekeeper and barmaid in a Satan’s Slaves pub (the British equivalent to the Hell’s Angels). She also spent six months working in the research and development division of Mountain Breeze, which makes air purifiers, before heading to graduate school at University College London.

Speck and her Scottish husband, Alan Whittington, an assistant professor in MU’s geology department, had their first child — a boy, Xander — in 2004.

When they find some free time, Speck and Whittington share an interest in music. Their tastes are broad, from Frank Sinatra to Metallica. In London, Speck and Whittington organized small parties at dorms, small clubs and houses, performing as DJs at them.

“In grad school, I used to (DJ) and organize a very modest series of bands at a small local venue,” Whittington said.

Speck also enjoys watching films. When she was in school, she tried to go to the movies as many times as she could, even though ticket prices on the big screen in London can be up to twice what they are in the United States. “I don’t have one favorite movie -— I could give you a list of about 10,” Speck said. “But I could probably take one from each decade, maybe. There are too many good movies, and it’s hard to compare.”

Speck doubts she will ever get to be an astronaut. But studying stardust gets her close enough for now.

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