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Saving the world from killer supernova: Matt Caplan propels physics into headlines

animated image of the solar system with a Dyson Sphere

Image from Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell 's video on a stellar engine, written by Matt Caplan, Ph.D.

“Asteroid terror: Scientists devise shock plot to avoid killer space rocks by moving Earth”

“Scientists want to move the Sun and our Solar System to save Earth from killer asteroids”

headshot of Matt Caplan

Matthew Caplan

Illinois State University’s Assistant Professor of Physics Matthew Caplan can barely suppress a smile when he hears the headlines from various news outlets. “This makes me sound like a Marvel superhero,” said Caplan, sitting in a coffee shop in Uptown Normal.

A theoretical physicist by day, Caplan’s work rarely involves saving the solar system. What he does instead is study how stars freeze. His research uses large-scale computer simulations to study the interiors of neutron stars. His dissertation earned awards from Indiana University and the American Physical Society. He served as a fellow at the McGill Space Institute in Montreal, Quebec, before arriving at Illinois State in the fall.

For years, Caplan has also been a go-to scientist for the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell, which works to explain complex scientific ideas in ways non-scientists can understand. Caplan penned more than two dozen videos for Kurzgesagt, including one last year on creating a Dyson Sphere which can theoretically capture the energy of a sun. He followed it up with a recent video featuring a way to use a Dyson Sphere—as a stellar engine that could, slowly, propel a solar system.

Media outlets seized on the larger-than-life idea of moving stars and planets with a device that bore Caplan’s name.

While explaining the process to animators at Kurzgesagt, Caplan referred to the engine as a thermo-nuclear jet propulsion system. “That didn’t roll off the tongue,” said Caplan, so the animators declared the engine the Caplan Thruster. “Scientists don’t name things after themselves. They just don’t,” said Caplan with a laugh. Yet the name stuck.

As he was creating the theoretical model for the video, Caplan began to think he had enough new material for a publication to go along with the video. He decided to submit the work to the peer-reviewed Acta Astronautica, which published the piece on how stellar engines might manipulate a star’s galactic orbit, how one might be built, and how to detect one if aliens elsewhere in the galaxy have built one. “It might be the first peer-reviewed publication to come from a YouTube video,” said Caplan.

The attention the theoretical stellar engine received surprised its namesake, but Caplan sees it as a positive, even amid the shock headlines. “The video has more than 3 million hits. That’s a lot of people talking about physics,” he said.

 

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