UC Blue Ash physics professor wins international award for groundbreaking essay

Cenalo Vaz headshot

Cenalo Vaz, PhD

An essay that offers a solution to a decades-old puzzle in the world of physics recently earned Cenalo Vaz, PhD, first place in the Gravity Research Foundation Awards for 2022.

Vaz is a professor of physics at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College who is considered a leading specialist in the field of gravitational collapse and black hole radiation. He has authored or co-authored more than 70 articles, presented his research at several international conferences and won a top-five award from the Gravity Research Foundation (GRF) four times over the past 20 years. In 2014, he took second place for proving a theory by noted physicist Stephen Hawking about how black holes work.

The GRF is highly respected among physicists in the gravity community. Its annual award contest is a prestigious, international competition that was founded in 1949 and draws submissions each year from leading physicists around the world. There are even some past winners of the first-place award who have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. They include Roger Penrose (won Nobel Prize in 2020), Frank Wilczek (2004), and Gerard ‘t Hooft (1999).

Vaz’s essay, "Proper Time Quantization of a Thin Shell," focuses on a version of the “problem of time” in the quantum theory, when spacetime is dynamical. He proposes that there is a particular time variable, called the proper time, in which quantum theory must be built. He demonstrated its effectiveness by building the quantum mechanics of a collapsing shell of self-gravitating matter.

“The problem of time is always at the back of one’s mind if one researches quantum gravity. The puzzle stems from a 1992 paper, which showed that there was no quantum theory for shells of mass greater than about a hundredth of a microgram,” said Vaz. “With my proper time quantization, I was able to show that in fact the reverse is actually true.”

Colleagues note that the findings could lead to more answers to questions that have challenged physicists for years.

“Cenalo is a first-rate physicist with a long track record of thinking deeply about the intersection of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, which is a long-standing and extremely important problem in theoretical physics,” says Richard Gass, associate professor and undergraduate director of physics at UC’s College of Arts & Sciences. “Cenalo’s work makes progress on this problem and points the way to answering additional questions about gravitational collapse.”

Vaz said he had the breakthrough while on sabbatical this past spring when he was able to dedicate “some serious contiguous time” to the problem. He proposes that quantum mechanics in a dynamical spacetime should be reformulated in terms of a particular scalar time variable called the proper time.

“I think that the reason my essay was selected is that I was able to show that my proposal had tangible consequences and that it has broader implications for constructing a self-consistent quantum theory,” notes Vaz. “It is really the latter that interests me and that I hope to work on over the next years.”

Featured photo at top of aerial view of UC Blue Ash campus. Photo/University of Cincinnati.

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