Exploring the Cosmos
As a young boy, Thulsi Wickramasinghe was fascinated by the cosmos. The future astrophysicist and his grandfather would wake at 3 a.m. and walk along the shore in southern Sri Lanka, discussing the magnificent stars and constellations above them until the rising sun overtook the night sky.
“Little by little, I started developing a great interest in astronomy,” says the associate professor of physics. “But it’s not the most popular subject in Sri Lanka.” For this reason, after earning a physics degree in his native land, Wickramasinghe set off in pursuit of his chosen profession abroad. He first traveled to Rome and studied astrophysics, then obtained a scholarship to research at the esteemed Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in northern Italy.
Afterwards, Wickramasinghe attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his master’s degree in Gravitation and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Cosmology. It was during this time that he cultivated an intense interest in gravitational lensing and gamma ray bursts (GRB), which are among his current research concentrations. “Gamma ray bursts are among the most violent explosions in the universe, but people do not know much about them,” Wickramasinghe explained. “I’m very interested in using these bursts to measure cosmological parameters.” Under the guidance of famed astrophysicist Bohdan Paczy?ski and Robert Nemiroff at NASA, Wickramasinghe investigated whether or not GRBs were confined to our Milky Way galaxy. His study found that the mysterious bursts in fact originate at farther reaches of the universe, releasing – in a few milliseconds – energy greater than that emitted by the sun in its entire lifetime.
Wickramasinghe joined the faculty of The College of New Jersey in 1997 after teaching for several years at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2008, ‘Dr. Wick’ and and one of his undergraduate research students presented at an international conference in Manchester, England on gravitational lensing and aspects of small compact masses in the Milky Way. Most recently, he and Tim Magee ’09 examined the correlation between the peak energy of light emitted at the source of gamma ray bursts and the total amount of energy released. In the spring of 2009, the pair journeyed to Egypt and announced their findings at the prestigious International Conference on Neutron Stars and Gamma Ray Bursts, where Wickramasinghe says they received “very nice feedback.” “Our idea was that because gamma ray bursts are so bright, they can be seen at very large distances in the cosmos,” he explained. In short, he was able to learn a lot about the cosmos by way of GRBs, in particular more about the dark energy content.
His other research interests include astrobiology (for instance, the possibility of life existing on Mars), the mathematical aspects of fluids, and archeoastronomy, particularly Egyptology. Wickramasinghe is also involved in observational astronomy. Shortly after arriving at The College of New Jersey, he traveled to Chile to observe star formation in the outskirts of remote galaxies by means of very large telescopes in collaboration with the European Southern Observatory.
Wickramasinghe is advisor of the Astronomy Club, and he teaches Introductory Astronomy, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Electromagnetic Theory, and Mathematical Physics. He also directs and coordinates activities at TCNJ’s astronomical observatory and the Paul S. Hiack Planetarium.
By Jessica Corry