Everything, everywhere all at once

Morgane König is a postdoc in theoretical cosmology at MIT and at Dartmouth College, and a 2023 MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. Her research focuses on the study of the universe as a whole, from the era of inflation to the present.

Cosmologist and MLK Scholar Morgane König uses gravitational waves to study the universe’s origins, inflation, and present trajectory.

Sophie Hartley | School of Science

November 29, 2023

The way Morgane König sees it, questioning how we came to be in the universe is one of the most fundamental parts of being human.

When she was 12 years old, König decided the place to find answers was in physics. A family friend was a physicist, and she attributed her interest in the field to him. But it wasn’t until a trip back to her mother’s home country of Côte d’Ivoire that König learned her penchant for the subject had started much younger. No one in Côte d’Ivoire was surprised she was pursuing physics — they told her she’d been peering upward at the stars since she was a small child, wondering how they all had come together. ­

That wonder never left her. “Everyone looks at the stars. Everyone looks at the moon. Everybody wonders about the universe,” says König. “I’m trying to understand it with math.”

König’s observations have led her to MIT, where in 2021 she continued studying theoretical cosmology as a postdoc with physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth and physicist and historian of science David Kaiser. Now, she is a member of MIT’s 2023-24 Martin Luther King (MLK) Visiting Professors and Scholars Program cohort, alongside 11 others. This year, members of the MLK Scholars are researching and teaching diverse subjects including documentary filmmaking, behavioral economics, and writing children’s books.

Once she was set on physics, König finished her undergraduate studies in 2012, double-majoring in mathematics and physics at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

Still compelled by questions about the universe, König narrowed in on cosmology, and graduated with her master’s degree from Pierre and Marie Curie in 2014. The way König describes it, cosmology is like archaeology, just up in space. While astronomers study galaxy formations and mutations — all of the stuff in the universe — cosmologists study everything about the universe, all at once.

“It’s a different scale, a different system,” says König. “Of course, you need to understand stars, galaxies, and how they work, but cosmologists study the universe and its origin and contents as a whole.”

From practice to theory

Throughout her studies, König said, she was often the only woman in the room. She wanted to pursue the theories behind cosmology but wasn’t encouraged to try. “You have to understand that being a woman in this field is super, incredibly difficult,” says König. “I told everyone I wanted to do theory, and they didn’t believe in me. So many people told me not to do it.”

When König had the opportunity to pursue a PhD in observational cosmology in Marseille and Paris, she almost accepted. But she was more drawn to theory. When she was offered a spot with a little more freedom to study cosmology at the University of California at Davis, she took it. Alongside Professor Nemanja Kaloper, König dove into inflation theory, looking all the way back to the universe’s beginning.

It is well-known that the universe is always expanding. Think about inflation as the precursor to that expansion — a quick and dramatic beginning, where the universe grew exponentially fast.

“Inflation is the moment in history that happened right after the beginning of the universe,” says König. “We’re not talking about 1 second, not even a millisecond. We are talking 10 to the negative 32nd seconds.” In other words, it took 0.000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,01 seconds for the universe to go from something minuscule to, well, everything. And today, the universe is only getting bigger.

Only a sliver of the universe’s composition is understandable using current technology — less than 5 percent of the universe is composed of matter we can see. Everything else is dark matter and dark energy.

For decades, cosmologists have been trying to excavate the universe’s mysterious past using photons, the tiny, particle form of light. Since light travels at a fixed speed, light emitted further back in the universe’s history, from objects that are now farther away from us due to the expansion of the universe, takes longer to reach Earth. “If you look at the sun — don’t do it! — but if you did, you’d actually be seeing it eight minutes in the past,” says König. As they carve their way through the universe, photons give cosmologists historical information, acting as messengers across time. But photons can only account for the luminous 4.9 percent of the universe. Everything else is dark.

Since dark matter doesn’t emit or reflect photons like luminous matter, researchers can’t see it. König likens dark matter to an invisible person wearing a tuxedo. She knows something is there because the tuxedo is dancing, swinging its arms and legs around. But she can’t see or study the person inside the suit using the technology at hand. Dark matter has stirred up countless theories, and König is interested in the methods behind those theories. She is asking: How do you study something dark when light particles are necessary for gathering historical information?

According to König and her MIT collaborators — Guth, the forerunner of inflation theory, and Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science — the answer might lie in gravitational waves. König is using her time at MIT to see if she can sidestep light particles entirely by using the ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves. These waves are caused by the collision of massive, dense stellar objects such as neutron stars. Gravitational waves also transmit information across the universe, in essence giving us a new sense, like hearing is to seeing. With data from instruments such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and NANOGrav, “not only can we look at it, now we can hear the cosmos, too,” she says.

Black in physics

Last year, König worked on two all-Black research teams with physicists Marcell Howard and Tatsuya Daniel. “We did great work together,” König says, but she points out how their small group was one of the largest all-Black theoretical physics research teams — ever. She emphasizes how they cultivated creativity and mentorship while doing highly technical science, producing two published papers (Elastic Scattering of Cosmological Gravitational Wave Backgrounds and An SZ-Like Effect on Cosmological Gravitational Wave Backgrounds).

Out of the 69,238 people who have earned doctorates in physics and astronomy since 1981, only 122 of them were Black women, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. When König finished her PhD in 2021, she became the first Black student at UC Davis to receive a PhD in physics and the ninth Black woman to ever complete a doctorate in theoretical physics in the United States.

This past October, in a presentation at MIT, König ended with an animated slide depicting a young Black girl sitting in a dark meadow, surrounded by warm lights and rustling grass. The girl was looking up at the stars, her eyes full of wonder. “I had to make this with AI,” says König. “I couldn’t find an image online of a young Black girl looking up at the stars. So, I made one.”

In 2017, König went to Côte d’Ivoire, spending time teaching school children about physics and cosmology. “The room was full,” she says. Adults and students alike came to listen to her. Everyone wanted to learn, and everyone echoed the same questions about the universe as König did when she was younger. But, she says, “the difference between them and me is that I was given a chance to study this. I had access to people explaining how incredible and exciting physics is.”

König sees a stark disconnect between physics in Africa and physics everywhere else. She wants universities around the world to make connections with African universities, building efforts to encourage students of all backgrounds to pursue the field of physics.

König explains that ushering in more Black and African physicists means starting at the beginning and encouraging more undergraduates and young students to enter the field. “There is an enormous amount of talent and brilliance there,” König says. She sees an opportunity to connect with students across Africa, building the bridges needed to help everyone pursue the questions that keep them looking up at the stars.

While König loves her research, she knows theoretical cosmology has far to come to as a discipline. “There is so much room to grow in the field. It’s not all figured out.”

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