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Introducing Jan Zika...

Name: Jan Zika
Education: Bachelor of Science
Current Occupation: Honours student
Where: School of Maths & Physics, University of Tasmania

Maths has always come naturally to Jan. In year nine at Taroona High School he gave a class presentation attempting to explain Einstein’s relativity theory using a lead weight and a foam mattress. “The half blank, half-intrigued looks I got from my classmates made me realise that I thought a little differently,” says Jan. “When it came to choosing a degree after finishing school at Hobart College, I wanted to do everything from being an actor, photographer, journalist, and climbing guide to the Prime Minister of Australia,” he says. The choice for Jan, however, actually came quite easily. He decided he wanted to understand the most he could, and focus on understanding the fundamentals, this decision led him to a degree in maths and physics.

Jan Zika

When one thinks of a physicist, a middle-aged old man with thick glasses, who works with elaborately named pieces of machinery often springs to mind. However, discoveries in physics affect everything from mobile phones to philosophy, and physicists and mathematicians have made some of the most important discoveries in climate research, biology and economics.

Jan had recently graduated from his Bachelor degree in maths and physics, and is now completing his Honours year studying the explosive motions of gas clouds deep in space. “My ability to perform such research is nothing to do with intelligence or talent, it’s simply the combination of hard work and the skills learnt during my studies at the University of Tasmania,” says Jan. “Mathematics allows us to deconstruct what seem to be the most complicated things, and describe them with sets of simple equations. Take, for instance, both a bucket of water and our own galaxy, the Milky Way. One is less than a foot wide and the other would take the fastest craft imaginable, billions of years to cross. The magic thing is, that both can be described simply with exactly the same few lines of squiggly Greek letters. Those, seemingly useless characters, tell us almost everything we could care to know about how both minuscule water molecules in a bucket and massive planets in a galaxy behave,” Jan explains.

Gas clouds in deep space

“Everything from DNA, the stock market, the vibrations of a guitar string, the spread of diseases, and the barrelling waves at Bells Beach can be deconstructed into an analogous mathematical form. With such simple information, a physicist or mathematician, using both a pen and paper and a sophisticated computer (not to mention a lot of hard work), can tell you about your health, where to invest, what note to play, what borders to close, and where the best surf is at,” says Jan.

Find out more about Jan's project

Key words: Astrophysics, supersonic expansion, gas clouds

For his Honours project on astrophysics, Jan is modelling the supersonic expansion of ionised gas around massive stars—or put more simply, he is studying huge clouds of gas that surround massive stars. To put the size of these huge clouds and massive stars into perspective, the clouds of gas are bigger than our solar system, and the massive stars are much larger than our sun. The gas clouds are much hotter and denser than the cold gas nearby, so like an overfilled balloon, they explode and create a shock wave.

Scientists have not yet explained why there are so many hot gas clouds in space. “The physics of everything changes when it is much bigger, hotter and faster,” Jan explains. “In space, explosions with huge amounts of energy are continually going on, which we can’t recreate on Earth.” If scientists like Jan can work out how the laws of physics work in space, and why, he can help us to understand how they work on Earth as well. After all, it was astronomers asking how our Sun burns so brightly for so long that led us to discover where all the atoms in our body came from.

Jan’s work on astrophysics is being done through the University of Tasmania. “The University of Tasmania is one of the best in the country for Radio and Optical Astronomy, and Australia is extremely well renowned in these fields” says Jan.

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