Beyond Einstein: A young Pinoy physicist shines light on black holes, dark energy

Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 07 2020 09:56 PM | Updated as of Jun 08 2020 12:28 AM

The first ever photograph of a black hole and its fiery halo released by Event Horizon Telescope astronomers (EHT). The photograph is the "most direct proof of their existence," according to one of the project’s lead scientists. European Southern Observatory/ via AFP

MANILA - Last May 22, the country’s physics community marked a milestone as a young graduate student from the University of the Philippines (UP) hurdled the last challenge to receiving a doctoral degree by going beyond the work of Albert Einstein. 

While many Filipinos across the country may have been stuck at home watching the news or Netflix, playing mobile games, or fighting on Facebook, some of the Philippines’ most brilliant physicists gathered in a virtual room to quiz a 28-year-old graduate student. 

After almost 3 hours of grilling by some of the country’s best minds in physics, Reginald Bernardo was finally cleared to add the title Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) to his name, becoming the Philippines’ first homegrown PhD in the esoteric field of gravitational physics. 

Bernardo’s mentors were all praises for the young physicist and jubilant over what they all agreed was a landmark event in Philippine science. 

“Dahil medyo mahirap na area ito, sini-signify nito, kino-confirm nito yung matagal na nating suspicion na given the proper environment, kaya talagang mag-compete ng mga Pinoy na estudyante,” said Prof. Perry Esguerra, who was a panelist in Bernardo’s thesis. 

Reina Reyes, an astrophysicist who got her PhD from Princeton University, said she was also “very impressed with the work” of Bernardo.

Prof. Ian Vega, the head of the National Institute of Physics’ (NIP) Gravity Group, was perhaps the most ecstatic about Bernardo’s achievement of a PhD.

“Flex talaga ng grupo namin yun na we have somebody here who is very good,” said Vega, who was also Bernardo’s thesis adviser. 

(Our group is proud to have somebody here who is very good.)

“The floodgates of possibilities have been opened,” Vega added. 

Bernardo, meanwhile, was still processing what it all meant. He said he didn’t really realize the significance of what he had achieved until a few days later. 

“Actually, 'di ko siya na-realize until recently,” Bernardo during an interview a week after his thesis defense. 

The facade of the UP Diliman College of Science. Art Fuentes ABS-CBN News

THE DARK UNIVERSE AND THE PROBLEM WITH EINSTEIN

In his thesis, Bernardo examined black holes--remnants of stars so massive that their collapse literally punched a hole through space itself. 

He also looked at the expansion of the universe and how a mysterious entity dubbed as “dark energy” is affecting this.

To understand some of these mysteries, Bernardo decided to go beyond the ideas of a man who has become synonymous with scientific genius--Einstein. The young Filipino physicist looked beyond the Theory of General Relativity or GR. 

Published by Einstein in 1916, GR has become the accepted scientific explanation for gravity, the force that causes things to fall down, fixes the orbits of planets and stars, controls the motion of galaxies and drives the evolution of the universe--at least until recently.

General Relativity has stood for more than a hundred years as its predictions were confirmed time and again by scientific observations. But recent discoveries about the strange behavior of galaxies and the speed of the expansion of the universe have cast doubt on GR’s ability to completely describe the cosmos. 

In the 1970s, astronomers observed how stars, dust and other galactic stuff didn’t seem to be following General Relativity in the way they moved around the centers of galaxies. Stars nearer the center are supposed to be moving faster, while stars farther away should move slower. Instead, stars at the edges were moving just as fast as the stuff near the center. 

“Hindi bumabagal yung pag-ikot as you move away from the center of the galaxy, which would have been the case kung tama nga si [Isaac] Newton at si Einstein,” said Vega.

Theorists put forward something called “dark matter” to explain this unexpected phenomenon.

In 1998, astronomers also observed that the expansion of the universe has been accelerating.

A slide from Reginald Bernardo's PhD thesis on an alternative theory of gravity

While many scientists previously expected the expansion to slow down because of gravity, the opposite was observed: galaxies were speeding farther and farther away from each other in an extreme cosmic version of social distancing. 

Theorists explained that this unexpected expansion was due to "dark energy," another mysterious force that is supposedly counteracting gravity on a cosmic scale.

Physicists assume that dark matter and dark energy exist because they think General Relativity applies to galaxies in the same way that it applies to objects in our solar system. But what if it doesn’t?

Bernardo’s thesis, “Compact Objects, Cosmologies, and Gravitational Perturbations in Scalar-Tensor Theories of Gravity,” presents an alternative.

“Extrapolate mo yung GR, valid siya for solar system and astrophysical scales,” Bernardo said. “No one knows if it works for cosmological scales.” 

Esguerra said dark matter and dark energy seem to have been “added on” to General Relativity to account for what scientists observe.

“Sa General Relativity ni Einstein, afterthought yung dark matter and dark energy eh. Parang: Uy 'di natin ma-account lahat, dagdag natin yung dark matter and dark energy,” Esguerra said.

“There’s a smaller group of people who are of the persuasion that, maybe nga, hindi nga tama si Einstein on those scales, and we have to contemplate a different theory of gravity that reduces to Einsteinian relativity on short scales but is actually very different on large scales,” Vega said.

What Bernardo and Vega are doing is exploring alternative theories of gravity that try to reproduce the observations without recourse to dark matter and dark energy.

Esguerra said two of Bernardo’s papers, which were co-written with colleagues, could be “game-changers” in the field of gravitational physics.

Interestingly, if you do a Google search about “stealth black holes”, another topic which Bernardo has studied, his paper comes out on top of the list, besting even popular science articles on the subject. 

Reginald Bernardo

TENACITY, CURIOSITY AND A DOSE OF HUMILITY

Since he started studying physics in UP in 2010, Bernardo has published 12 papers, several of which were in top international physics journals. This level of productivity is virtually unheard of in theoretical physics in the Philippines, Vega said.

“As a PhD student, masuwerte ka na kung 2 or 3 ang publications mo,” said Vega, Bernardo’s doctoral mentor. 

“Ako, by the time natapos ko yung PhD, 3 lang ang publications ko,” said Esguerra, who also mentored Bernardo when the young physicist was taking his masteral degree.

“I was not bad, pero nasa ibang level sya [Bernardo] eh,” said Esguerra. This is saying a lot as Esguerra’s intelligence is the stuff of legend at UP where he entered the university’s physics program when he was just 13 years old. 

“It’s also a very big deal to have published so many papers out of your work, which means that he’s not just really original and creative but also prolific,” said Reyes, one of the few physicists who can claim that their work confirmed one of the predictions of Einstein’s theory. 

“Hindi ako nahihiyang sabihin na among my students, I have learned the most from him,” Esguerra said. 

But while his own mentors eagerly shower praises on him, Bernardo remains humble and doesn’t even consider himself a cut above his peers. 

“Sobrang daming mas talented, mas mabilis na estudyante kumpara sa akin,” he said.

Bernardo, who graduated from Don Bosco Canlubang, said he himself admires his classmates who came from science high schools, who could solve equations much faster than him.

And despite graduating magna cum laude in physics, he thinks he just got lucky. 

“Tsamba lang yun,” he said, attributing the honor to a rounding error in the calculation of grade averages. 

While Bernardo said that while he may not have the fastest CPU, his mentors agree that his other personal traits make for a bullet-proof OS that simply gets the job done. 

“Basically he has all the skills you want in a grad student--curious, excited, self-driven, magaling sa time management, hindi takot na mag-explore sa sarili nya,” said Vega.

Esguerra said these skills are as important for a physicist as the “spark” of an original idea.

“Syempre, importante yung may spark. Pero spark without discipline, medyo after a while, kulang na eh, 'di mo ma-sustain,” Esguerra said.

Bernardo also credits his achievements to his tenacity.

“Makulit ako pag may gusto akong maintindihan. Kahit gaano kababa grades ko, pipilitin ko syang maintindihan,” Bernardo said. 

This curiosity and thirst for understanding also drives Bernardo to push himself farther than what’s required. 

“Importanteng hallmark yun ng isang magaling na physicist-- intellectual independence, going way beyond what your mentors instructed you to do,” Esguerra said.

“I wanted to do more, learn more, make sure everyday meron akong matutunan,” said Bernardo.

MAGIC AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF GRAVITATIONAL PHYSICS

But Bernardo isn’t the stereotypical academic nerd either who has no life beyond his studies. Like a lot of bright young minds at UP, he also loves science fiction, fantasy and comic books.

For his Facebook profile, this young physics wizard chose a picture of himself dressed up in a Hogwarts costume holding a wand saying “Expecto Patronum.”

He admits to being a fan of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings as well as the Marvel cinematic universe--especially Spiderman. 

While other physics students may say they were inspired by Newton, Einstein or others in the pantheon of physics, Bernardo counts Peter Parker as his inspiration.

“This series [Spiderman] is surrounded by a lot of science and physics concepts (such as) radioactivity, nuclear fusion, symbiosis, nanotechnology, robotics, to name a few. And its second film set the bar for superhero action,” Bernardo said, referring to the epic confrontation between Spidey and Dr. Octopus. 

Quoting a line from the first Thor movie, Bernardo said science is the closest we have to magic, and science is just magic that’s better understood. 

“Magic ang tawag mo kung di mo maintindihan.” 

After finishing his PhD, Bernardo is slated to do post-doctoral research at the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics where he hopes to help answer one of the biggest mysteries in cosmology today: What is dark energy?

“Is it a constant dynamical energy? Could we assume that? If not, then what is it?”

The field of gravitational physics, Bernardo said, is entering a golden age thanks to the recent confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves by new observatories specifically designed to detect them. Vega agrees that it is an exciting time for gravity research. Vega is also optimistic that his student will be able to make significant contributions to unraveling the mysteries of gravity and the cosmos.

But, for now, Vega is celebrating what he calls Bernardo’s “transcendental” achievement. The UP physics professor said Bernardo has shown that in theoretical physics, Filipinos are just as talented as their counterparts abroad. 

“Maganda yung ginawa ni Reggie kasi it shows that it can be done,” Vega said. 

Readers who want to know more about Bernardo and Vega's research can check out their personal websites: