Dr. Sharmanthie Fernando and two of her students are studying the mystery of black holes. 

Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko
AmandaManning Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

“All of these years, black holes have been this mysterious and theoretical object physicists studied. There is a fascination about it because it leads to something tangible that exists in our universe…”

By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications

When a star’s fuel runs out—when its nuclear fusion reactions grind to a halt—the star plunges inward and collapses under its own weight. The collapse causes a ripple of gravitational waves to flow from it, leaving only a smaller, compacted mass in its wake. The spot where the remains of the star is trapped is called a singularity, where the gravitational pull is so strong that it prevents anything—including light—from escaping. This phenomenon is known as a black hole.

Black holes can’t be seen directly, but scientists can observe the presence around them and their effect on nearby stars. Dr. Sharmanthie Fernando, a physics professor at Northern Kentucky University, has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to studying this mysterious process and the existence of black holes in the universe. She has published 41 research articles on them in well-known journals and has presented her findings at national and international conferences.

Because of her outstanding contributions to the field and the University, Dr. Fernando—the only faculty member on NKU’s campus to conduct black hole research—recently received the NKU Full-Time Faculty Excellence in Research Award.“That was very rewarding for me,” Fernando says. “It’s nice to be recognized for my work. I have written papers, gone to a lot of conferences, and presented my work all over the world. But it’s nice to be appreciated here at NKU.”

Recently, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO)— two facilities in Washington and Alabama dedicated to the detection and measurement of cosmic gravitational waves—observed waves emitted from a collision of two black holes that occurred 1.4 billion years ago, Fernando says.

“All of these years, black holes have been this mysterious and theoretical object physicists studied,” Fernando says. “LIGO scientists finally got that signal—proof that black holes exist. There is a fascination about it because it leads to something tangible that exists in our universe.”

Fernando didn’t always have a fascination with physics. She knew she would eventually become a teacher, but she grew up thinking the subject would be music. Back home in Sri Lanka—where she was born and raised—her mother was a music teacher. Fernando was always playing the violin as a child. She still plays the violin and has performed with several orchestras in the region, including NKU’s Community Orchestra. 

During the early years of her undergraduate career, Fernando found an interest in mathematics. While she was working toward an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, she began reading about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and black holes. The existence of black holes was predicted in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the term black hole was coined by astronomer John Wheeler.

Fernando decided to change her path again and head into physics. When she moved to the U.S., she pursued her first master’s degree in physics and a second master’s degree in mathematics in 1996. After she finished her Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1998, she joined NKU’s physics faculty and earned tenure in 2007.

During her time at NKU, one of Fernando’s most important areas of focus has been the students she involves in her research. 

“I believe that getting our students to do research as early as possible is one of the ways to retain them in our programs,” Fernando says. “Even though many think that black hole research is too complex and mathematical for undergraduates, I have been able to get students involve in projects leading to publications. Research opens a pathway for students to be creative, be independent thinkers, and contribute ideas to science in a way that is not possible when they do their regular course work.”

Her philosophy is evident in the research she’s doing with sophomore physics major Amanda Manning and senior physics major Bryan Watkins.

Amanda is studying the “ringing tones” of a black hole. When a bell is struck, the tone of the bell is identified by the frequencies of the waves it emits. Similarly, a black hole can oscillate.

“We’re changing different properties of the black hole such as mass and charge to see how it affects the ringing tones of the black hole,” Amanda says. “We are also studying how temperature of black holes are related to these ringing tones.”

Amanda, a Boone County High School graduate, is using computer software Mathematica to perform all calculations and plot the graphs for the project.

“If we detect such frequencies, then we will be able to identify the properties of the black holes in our universe,” Fernando says. “These frequencies are similar to harmonics in a musical instrument, where the frequencies are related by an integral multiple of a base frequency.”

Bryan, a Pendleton County High School graduate, is studying phase transitions of black holes.

“We all know that if we cool water, then it becomes ice. This transition from water to ice is called a phase transition,” Fernando says. “Phase transitions are common in nature and are used in many modern technologies, Similar to the water-ice transition, black holes are considered as the substance in question—the transition is between small black holes and large black holes.”

Bryan and Fernando are using their knowledge as it relates to black holes to simplify how a black hole can be understood.  

“One thing we understand pretty well in physics is thermodynamics and how different gasses behave under different circumstances,” Bryan says. “If you change the container or pressure of something, like a can of Pepsi, what happens if you shake it up? You’re changing different things about it and how it might react to those changes.”

The research Amanda and Bryan are doing with Fernando will be sent to a peer-reviewed journal when completed, and they plan to present their findings at the Kentucky Academy of Science meeting and Poster-at-the-Capital in Frankfort. They will have the opportunity to present their work to other scientists and network with faculty in the region.

“The kind of research I do with undergraduate students at NKU is usually done at the graduate level,” Fernando says. “Therefore, our students have a great advantage of getting involved in cutting-edge research at an early stage of their careers. Publishing a paper on black hole physics as an undergraduate is a remarkable achievement.”