Richard Lewis, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0012
Danny Tallon: Supernova student
Danny Tallon: Supernova student
Danny Tallon: Supernova student
Danny Tallon is serious about space. After all, he’d love to go there.
Tallon, an undergraduate physics major at the University of Iowa, studies supernovas, which are exploding stars hundreds of billions of light years from Earth. The junior from Mondamin, Iowa, is a published author on two scientific papers that describe the curious behavior of a type of supernova whose explosions defy what physicists think should be happening.
Tallon wants to parlay his research and academic studies into a career in the U.S. Air Force as a scientist studying space—and, when he allows himself to dream, perhaps an astronaut.
“That is a part that I’ve been thinking about,” Tallon says. “I know it seems a little unrealistic, but it sounds fun.”
For now, Tallon is satisfied with his earthly accomplishments. He is a cadet in the UI’s Air Force ROTC program, mentoring a dozen younger cadets in military training, physical fitness, and leadership skills. His work researching supernovas earned him praise from Department of Physics and Astronomy professor Robert Mutel, who invited the then-sophomore Tallon to join his research team.
Tallon has been fixated on the cosmos ever since, in particular learning as much as he can about objects such as supernovas, whose explosions are so bright they outshine the galaxies in which they reside.
“There’s so much of it,” Tallon says of his interests in space. “There’s a whole universe 13 billion light-years across. When I think of physics, I think of space. Light travels through space, you have massive magnetic fields, stars and charged particles spiraling around them. That’s what I think of. And that’s cool.”
Tallon’s curiosity with the world—and universe—stems from his childhood. At his middle school, he filled the “burning questions” box asking about phenomena in nature, such as why rainbows are curved. At home, he regularly watched the TV series Cosmos, hosted by the legendary astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
For fun, he and his father, a mechanical engineer who works for Omaha Public Power District, would attempt to solve societal problems with “just some back-of-the-envelope equations,” he says.
One of those involved deducing how much landfill space would be freed up if all chewing gum were swallowed rather than thrown away.
“We figured it would be the equivalent (volume) of five blue whales each year,” Tallon says with a modest shrug.
Tallon chose the UI for its prowess in physics and astronomy and because the university has a vibrant ROTC program. His interest in the military comes from his father, who served 10 years in the U.S. Navy and another 14 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, retiring as a commander. Tallon remembers his dad telling him stories about his service, such as operating radar aboard E-2C Hawkeye aircraft and playing basketball on the deck of a ship at sea.
“He was a real motivation for me to join the military,” says Tallon, who has brothers serving in the Navy and the Marines. “He had a great time there. Now that I’m in it, I love it.”
Tallon joined Air Force ROTC his first year and has flourished, says Shannon Boyles, a major and operations officer in the UI Air Force ROTC, who oversees recruiting.
Boyles says Tallon takes one of the most intensive class loads of all cadets, and has learned how to balance his academics with his military and extracurricular commitments.
“He’s kind of blazing his own trail,” Boyles says. “He’s a powerful inspiration that you can balance a demanding academic regimen with ROTC service.”
Now in his third year, Tallon has assumed a leadership role mentoring a dozen cadets in military protocols, physical fitness, and leadership.
One of those he supervises is Grace Palmatier, a second-year student from Danville, Iowa. She says Tallon offers useful, supportive advice to her and fellow cadets, often working directly with them on drills or exercises they need to master.
Palmatier remembers one instance in particular: At her first field training preparation session last November, she was required to memorize and recite verses from the song “The U.S. Air Force” in front of a group of superiors.
She was nervous when she started.
“My voice was shaking, and I was just repeating it super straight-faced,” Palmatier recalls. “And, (Tallon) said, ‘I can tell you’re really nervous. You know this.’ And then he kind of made a joke about it, saying, ‘You can sing it, too. It’s a song.’ That helped me calm down. I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be fine.’”
Tallon says he chose the Air Force program because of the branch’s strength in physics and postgraduate opportunities in space science. He got a head start when he received the nod from Mutel, his physics and astronomy professor, to join his research team.
Tallon was one of the top students in General Astronomy I, and Mutel says he saw potential.
“He was obviously bright,” Mutel says. “He had this native ability and enthusiasm, confidence, and a high work ethic. And he was curious too.”
Tallon was assigned to a research project called the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN), which employs telescopes to scan the night sky for a type of supernova that has a companion star. Those supernova explosions are important because they are used as cosmic rulers to measure distances across the universe.
As Tallon studied the ASAS-SN data, he and others noticed something unusual: Two supernovas, labeled SN2018bt and SN2018oh, had two peaks of brightness rather the one, as if each had exploded twice.
That wouldn’t be physically possible unless the exploding star’s ejected material crashed into its nearby companion star. Some models have predicted that scenario, but there has been little observational evidence for it. The ASAS-SN observations with the double peaks of brightness suggest companion stars exist—but they don’t fully address the physics of what is going on.
“It tells us our models for how supernovas explode are not complete,” Tallon says.
That realization became the topic of two papers to be published in The Astrophysical Journal for which Tallon is a co-author.
Mutel says Tallon’s inclusion as a co-author is well deserved.
“He has that innocence and genuineness that he could easily be overlooked,” Mutel says. “It’s quite charming, actually. He doesn’t have any arrogance. He’s a good Iowa kid.”
For Tallon, it means there’s more to figure out.
“It’s easy to think sometimes that, ‘Oh, we’re winding down, it’s just stuff in a textbook.’ But when you come into a problem like this, we don’t know what’s happening here,” Tallon says. “It’s not old ground that is being retrodden. This is new science happening right now.”