Life of a Galaxy, In Ten Seconds

Meet physics major Beckett Cummings ’20.

September 3, 2020

Major: Physics

Hometown: Glenview, Illinois

Thesis adviser: Prof. Johnny Powell 

Thesis: N-Body Simulation of Cosmological Structure

What it’s about: I ran cosmological simulations with initial conditions corresponding to observed and theorized early-universe distributions. These simulations resulted in the formation of interconnected fibril structures which qualitatively resemble observed distributions, and the formation of galaxies at the intersection of these fibrils. 

What it’s really about: By using a simple approximation of gravity, we can get a surprisingly accurate picture of how the universe looks.

In high school: I was a bit of a know-it-all. Band was a pretty central feature of my life. (I played trumpet.)

Influential classes: Two physics classes at Reed really stand out. First, Classical Mechanics I, with Prof. Johnny Powell. Before this class, I had a conception of classical mechanics as “old and boring,” especially in comparison to concepts like cosmology and quantum mechanics. This class really gave me an appreciation for the incredible utility of these timeless standards of physics. Quantum Mechanics II, taught by Prof. Darrell Schroeter, was impactful for a somewhat opposing reason: it demonstrated the remarkable utility of a rather complex and counterintuitive theory for straightforwardly solving countless problems.

Influential book: Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, by David J. Griffiths and Darrell F. Schroeter.

Concept that blew my mind: That the stuff we can see in the universe (stars, gas, dust) only accounts for 5% of the universe’s energy density.

Cool stuff: I briefly played keyboard in a band. Also learned to play (and love) squash.

Awards, fellowships, grants: The Delord-Mockett grant provided the funds for my summer research project.

Challenge I faced: In general, it’s been pretty tough to work on a series of physics projects that are inherently computer science–related as a noncoder.

How Reed changed me: In a somewhat nonacademic sense, coming to Reed has made me far more aware of (and engaged with) the issues going on in my community and society. In an academic sense, Reed has really given me a set of skills for tackling an immense assortment of problems, both physics- and non-physics-related.

What’s next: I’ll be staying in Portland for six months to a year and continuing my n-body simulation work with Johnny (we’ll be resuming our study of isolated galaxies).

Tags: Students, What is a Reedie?