8/01/2019 Peter Durantine

Student Researchers Peer into Mysterious Black Holes

Franklin & Marshall College junior Elisa Panciu spent her summer exploring one of the mysteries of the universe. Now she knows her post-graduate plans are in astrophysics.

“Doing research on black holes with Professor (Curtis) Asplund was a life-changing experience; it was something that I never even dreamed of doing,” the astrophysics major said. “Not only did I get the opportunity to see how research works, but I also found a field of study that I love. I will most definitely continue to study black holes and string theory.”

Under the current understanding of gravity, when giant stars collapse under their own weight, they become so dense they transform into black holes in spacetime, from which not even light can escape. 

Asplund, visiting assistant professor of physics and astronomy, worked with three Hackman scholars this summer on graduate-school level projects related to his research on black holes. That research is one focus of his academic career. 

  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Curtis Asplund and his Hackman research scholars, from left to right, Ileane Ho, Sandy Chilson and Elisa Panciu. Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Curtis Asplund and his Hackman research scholars, from left to right, Ileane Ho, Sandy Chilson and Elisa Panciu. Image Credit: Lynn Johnson

"The students are working on different projects related to trying to understand black holes—how they work, what’s inside them, what they’re made of, what happens to them, and what happens when you fall in,” he said. “Finding those answers are the big goals of the field.” 

Ileane Ho, a senior physics major, worked on a quantum system; quantum mechanics is a theory that describes atoms and microscopic particles. Her analysis was on quantum information and patterns, the professor said.  

“We would like to understand the quantum properties of black holes, the microscopic particles of a black hole,” Asplund said.

Sandy Chilson, a senior astrophysics major, worked on a computer analysis of complicated digital patterns. Astrophysicists and theoretical physicists want to decode information black holes hold to determine their structure. The work fits Chilson’s post-graduate astrophysics plans.

“I specifically want to go into exoplanetary environmental modeling; my undergraduate research is giving me the experience that I will need to be a graduate-level researcher,” she said. “I gained a lot of knowledge about a subject I was unfamiliar with and bolstered my research skills. I look forward to continuing this project and monitoring any progress Professor Asplund makes.” 

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