Faculty Profile

John O'Meara, PhD

Associate Professor of Physics

Ph.D. University of California, San Diego
B.S. University of Washington

My research interests include, among other areas, Big Bang nucleosynthesis and light element abundances, Lyman limit and damped Lyman alpha systems, astrophysical properties of quasar absorption line systems, and galaxy-intergalactic medium interactions.

My primary research focus is to attempt to better understand the universe through the study of absorption lines seen in the spectra of high redshift quasars (or QSOs).  When we pass the light from any astronomical object through a spectrograph, it is broken into its constituent colors, producing a value for the intensity of the light as a function of the wavelength of the light.  Spectroscopy is a powerful tool with which we can learn what types of atoms astronomical objects are made of, what their energies are, and how they are moving relative to us on Earth.  In the case of QSO spectroscopy, the spectrum we see contains information about both the QSO and any material which happens to also lie along the line of site.  In my research, it is the intervening material which interests me. 

With two colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I recently published an astronomical break-through discovery in Science, the premier journal for all science on November 10, 2011.

Using the giant 10-meter Keck I telescope in Hawaii, we have discovered two giant clouds of intergalactic gas whose chemical composition has been unaltered since the dawn of time. The clouds, located over 11 billion light years from Earth, offer direct supporting evidence for the Big Bang model of cosmology. Physics World magazine named it one of their Top 10 Breakthroughs for 2011 (number 10).

Publications

  • J.K. Werk et al.  2012 ApJS, 198,3
  • M. Fumagalli et al. 2011 Science, 334, 1245
  • J. Tumlinson et al. 2011 Science, 334, 948
  • R. Simcoe et al. 2011 ApJ 740,1
  • J. M. O'Meara et al. 2011 ApJS, 195,16
  • J. Tumlinson et al. 2011 ApJ, 733, 111
  • J. Meiring et al. 2011 ApJ, 532, 35
  • J. M. O'Meara et al. 2010, GCN 11089,1
  • J.X. Prochaska et al. 2010, ApJ, 532, 35
  • M. Fumagalli et al. 2010, MNRAS, 408, 362
  • G. Prochter et al. 2010, ApJ, 708, 122
  • J.X. Prochaska et al. 2009, ApJL, 705,113
  • The Interstellar Medium of Gamma-Ray Burst Host Galaxies. I. Echelle Spectra of Swift GRB Afterglows
  • J. X. Prochaska et al. 2007, ApJS, 168, 231
  • The Keck+Magellan Survey for Lyman Limit Absorption. I. The Frequency Distribution of Super Lyman Limit Systems
  • J. M. O’Meara et al.  2007, ApJ, 656, 666
  • The Deuterium-to-Hydrogen Abundance Ratio toward the QSO SDSS J155810.16-003120.0 J. M. O’Meara et al.  2006, ApJ...649L..61O
  • Supersolar Super-Lyman Limit Systems, J. X. Prochaska et al.  2006, ApJ...648L..97P
  • A Shot in the Dark: A Technique for Locating the Stellar Counterparts of Damped Lyα Absorbers
  • J. M. O’Meara et al.  2006, ApJ...642L...9O
  • Predicting QSO Continua in the Lyα Forest, N. Suzuki et al.  2005, ApJ...618..592S
  • Cosmological Parameters σ8, the Baryon Density Ωb, the Vacuum Energy Density ΩΛ, the Hubble Constant and the UV
  • Background Intensity from a Calibrated Measurement of H I Lyα Absorption at z=1.9
  • D. Tytler et al.  2004, ApJ...617....1T
  • H I Gas in Higher Density Regions of the Intergalactic Medium
  • T. Misawa et al. 2004, AJ....128.2954M
  • Cosmology from the high redshift intergalactic medium
  • J. M. O’Meara 2004, PhDT.......196O
  • The Kast Ground-based Ultraviolet Spectral Survey of 79 Quasi-stellar Objects at Redshift 2 for Lyα Forest and Metal Absorption
  • D. Tytler et al.  2004, AJ....128.1058T
  • The Cosmological Baryon Density from the Deuterium-to-Hydrogen Ratio in QSO Absorption Systems: D/H toward Q1243+3047
  • D. Kirkman et al.  2003, ApJS..149....1
  • Relative Flux Calibration of Keck HIRES Echelle Spectra
  • N. Suzuki et al. 2003, PASP..115.1050S
  • The UCSD HIRES/Keck I Damped Lyα Abundance Database. IV. Probing Galactic Enrichment Histories with Nitrogen
  • J. X. Prochaska et al.  2002, PASP..114..933P
  • The UCSD HIRES/Keck I Damped Lyα Abundance Database. III. An Empirical Study of Photoionization in the Damped Lyα System toward GB 1759+7539
  • J. X. Prochaska et al.  2002, ApJ...571..693P
  • The UCSD HIRES/Keck I Damped Lyα Abundance Database. I. The Data
  • J. X. Prochaska et al.  2001ApJS..137...21P
  • New Hubble Space Telescope Spectra of QSO PG 1718+4807: No Evidence for Strong Deuterium Absorption
  • D. Kirkman et al.  2001ApJ...559...23K
  • The Deuterium to Hydrogen Abundance Ratio toward a Fourth QSO: HS 0105+1619
  • J. M. O’Meara et al. 2001ApJ...552..718O
  • QSO 0130-4021: A Third QSO Showing a Low Deuterium-to-Hydrogen Abundance Ratio
  • D. Kirkman et al.  2000ApJ...529..655K
  • Review of Big Bang Nucleosynthesis and Primordial Abundances
  • D. Tytler et al.   2000PhST...85...12T
  • Deuterium and the baryonic density of the Universe.
  • D Tytler. et al.  2000PhR...333..409T

Observing the Stars

John O’Meara, associate professor of physics, presented two talks at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., early in January. The talks were "Large Reservoirs Of Metal-Poor Gas Around z<1 Galaxies” and, "OVI as an Unique Tracer of Large-Scale Stellar Feedback at 2<z<4” He also appeared on five posters: "High-z QSO Absorption Systems: Metal-Poor Cold Flows and Mg II Absorber Host Galaxies,” "Metallicities of Extraplanar H II Regions in Edge-on Spiral Galaxies,” “The Metallicity Distribution of the Circumgalactic Medium at z < 1 Traced by Lyman Limit Systems,” “The First Detection of Deuterated Molecular Hydrogen at z < 1.7 Beyond the Milky Way Galaxy,” and "The High-Ion Content and Kinematics of Low-Redshift Lyman Limit Systems.” (March 2014)

John O'Meara, associate professor of physics, has been named a visiting Fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia next year.  That university is sponsoring John to engage in collaborative research for a month at Swinburne, spread over two visits of two weeks, once in June, once in November.  The visiting fellow position is one that is competed for internationally every year. (November 2013)


October 2013

Talking telescopes (and visiting them)

If you wave down John O'Meara, the college's resident astronomer genius, as he dashes across the Saint Michael’s campus green from Cheray Science Hall to the Post Office, he might tell you about telescopes - big ones, little ones, near and far.

"I was just in Chile at Las Campanas Observatory, and the second night - October 6 - was the best observing conditions I've ever had on the ground - ever," he says of coveted time that he applies for and frequently is awarded at the world's best and most powerful telescopes. He collects data at such sites for his ongoing study of galaxy formation, and is an oft-published and respected leader in his specialty field. Once or twice a year each, O'Meara says, he'll head either to Las Campanas, or to Hawaii's Keck Observatory, where in recent years he was able to take a student to collect data for a class project she was doing with him.

Though no students made it to Chile this trip, "my physics students got to enjoy a Tegrity session over the computer from the summit," he says, referring to the college's high-tech audio-visual teaching resource called Tegrity, and to the mountaintop location of Las Campanas. "They got to actually see me there - a silly video of me running under the primary mirrors to give them a sense of scale.”

O'Meara says he might use data he gathered in Chile for future astronomy classes, though it's hard to say exactly how until the information gets processed. "The data we took was superb in quality because the sky was so good. Whether that translates into a scientific discovery remains to be seen, but the raw data is as good as it can get from the ground," he says. The physics professor says he's already booked for a January trip to Hawaii to use the Keck for more observations. "The Chile telescope I just used is the best ground-based telescope for imaging - the Keck is the biggest boy in town and hard to beat with the technology and size - but if you want to take pictures of the sky, as I was doing, it's better on the average in Chile."

Such far-flung, cutting-edge technology in optimal observing conditions is a far cry from the college's own astronomical facility, the Holcomb Observatory - a small and curious-looking red-brick domed building that sits alone and mostly unvisited in a field near the Fire and Rescue Station across from main campus. But its telescope still works, O'Meara says, and he’s been known to take classes out there every so often.

Despite some drawbacks, it's a great resource, he says. "It's right near Route 15 with all the passing lights, and there's the night lights of Burlington on the horizon, plus it has giant trees back behind it, so the view is obfuscated in several major ways, but it still functions. So I take students at night to look at the sky - the moon, planets."

"It would be nicer if we even could just drop the observatory in the Mount Mansfield-facing field down from the rocks around the corner, or better yet, put the telescope on top of a building somewhere, but I guess that's not happening," he says. Perhaps, he allows, a system could be rigged to let students know when he's going to be at the Holcomb so they can come and view the sky when viewing is best - an "Observatory Webcam" might even be feasible, he says.

As a sidebar to that notion, he shares a bonus tip about better directing and thereby improving the strength of wireless router signals, either by using Pringles potato chip cans or by cutting a beer can in half and mounting the pieces on the bunny ears. "Pro tips!" he says.

professor John O'Meara at Las Campanas Observatory 

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