Research projects on galaxies, migratory birds and electrons awarded grants

Image: ESO
Image: ESO

A galactic journey spanning the history of the Milky Way. The supernatural powers of migratory birds. The art of seeing and controlling electrons. Three exciting research projects will soon commence at Lund University thanks to a multi-million donation from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Per Eng-Johnsson, professor at the Division of Atomic Physics, will receive just over SEK 25 million for doing something that no one has done before. He aims to combine two different laser-based techniques to study how matter reacts to extremely strong and rapid electric fields. The hope is to thereby gain new insights into the incredibly fast movements of electrons.

The techniques involved are two types of attosecond pulses, those that consist of flashes of light and those that consist of electrons. With the former, the researchers can, in simple terms, observe the movements of the electrons, while with the latter they can influence the movements using strong electric fields. At present, researchers at Lund University use both, but not simultaneously.


“This means that we will be able to both study and control the electrons' movements under conditions where this has not been done before”, says Per Eng-Johnsson.

The idea for the project came about in connection with the ongoing upgrade of the multiterawatt laser at Lund Laser Centre, something that will make it possible to create both light and electron pulses with pulse lengths of a few femtoseconds or even tens of attoseconds. The time scale is breathtaking: a femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second. An attosecond is, in turn, a thousand times shorter than a femtosecond.

The research is basic research, but in the long run perhaps others can benefit from what Per Eng-Johnsson and his colleagues hopefully will observe. For example, for creating shorter X-ray pulses for studies involving high time resolution, or for applications in photonics in the borderland between optics and electronics.

Co-applicants in the project are Olle Lundh, Anne L'Huillier and Claes-Göran Wahlström from the same department and Tünde Fülöp from Chalmers.

Time travel through the Milky Way

Another project also receiving grant money from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is about space. Two Lund astronomers, Sofia Feltzing and Oscar Agertz, will use a galactic time machine, partnering with colleagues in the UK and US. The purpose is to understand what happened when our own galaxy, the Milky Way, was formed.

This galactic time travel is made possible through advanced computer simulations that will take scientists on a virtual journey through the history of the Milky Way. Observations of stars in the Milky Way will be incorporated with the simulations to make them as realistic as possible. The project will receive just over SEK 20 million from the foundation, and has been granted 45 million simulation hours at European PRACE, Partnership For Advanced Computing in Europe.

The research community has learned more and more in recent decades about how galaxies form, but there are still many unanswered questions. For example, it is not understood why certain spiral galaxies stop producing new stars while others, such as the Milky Way, continue to create new stars. With an increased understanding of the history of the Milky Way, researchers can gain new knowledge about galaxy formation in general.

“It remains a great challenge for modern astrophysics to understand how galaxies form and evolve. A particularly exciting opportunity will be to attempt to find out which parts of the Milky Way have formed at what time”, say Sofia Feltzing and Oscar Agertz at Lund University.

New technology for migratory birds

A third research project will focus on migratory birds. Biology professor Anders Hedenström will receive approximately SEK 23 million, and will take a holistic approach to the factors that affect migratory birds and their flight from one part of the world to another. He will collaborate with colleagues Christoffer Johansson and Susanne Åkesson over a 5-year period.

For birds, flying takes a lot of energy. Therefore, it is extremely important that they use the energy as efficiently as possible. When, for example, the bar-tailed godwit makes its non-stop one-week flight of 11,000 kilometers from Alaska to New Zealand, it is a test of strength which, according to Anders Hedenström, corresponds to if a person were to run 1,200 marathons in a row. Without stopping and without eating.

To understand how birds are able to do this, the researchers will study aerodynamics, the movement of the wings, how efficiently they convert energy into transport, and whether the route is optimal or not. New microdata loggers have been developed that register acceleration, air pressure and position. The researchers will also develop unique data loggers that will register the activity in the air and what it costs the birds to move, for example the energy expended.

“With this tool, we will also be able to identify factors that explain why many migratory birds have decreased in number, both in Europe and in North America. We also aim to be able to predict migration pattern variations due to climate change”, concludes Anders Hedenström.

Plant survival


Plant physiologist Allan Rasmusson, will together with Vivi Vajda at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, study the survival strategies of plants - in the era of dinosaurs and today. Almost SEK 29 million will be awarded the project, led by Vivi Vajda.

By investigating the micro- and nanostructure of fossil plants, the project will explore how these differ from, but also resemble, today's plants. The researchers will focus in particular on the resilience of plants in connection with catastrophic environmental changes and mass extinction. The project can lead to an increased understanding of how climate change affects plants and thus our living conditions.

Per Eng-Johnsson

Per Eng-Johnsson

Sofia Feltzing

Sofia Feltzing

Oscar Agertz

Oscar Agertz

Anders Hedenström

Anders Hedenström