Manoj Kaplinghat

Manoj Kaplinghat
Steve Zylius / UCI

When gazing up at the night sky, physics & astronomy professor Manoj Kaplinghat doesn’t necessarily spot objects the rest of us miss, but his thoughts are sure different. Instead of pondering life on other planets or the vastness of space, he finds himself contemplating “the things you can’t see: dark matter and dark energy.”

At UCI – where an entire wall of his sun-splashed office is covered with scrawled equations about a possible “dark hydrogen atom” – Kaplinghat specializes in trying to uncover the mysterious, invisible elements and forces that drive the expansion of the universe.

Born and raised in India, the theoretical physicist traces his fascination with cosmology to a 1987 exploding star – or supernova – that was visible to the naked eye. “I didn’t actually see it, but I read lots of stories in the press and couldn’t get enough,” he recalls.

A few years later, Kaplinghat became the first college graduate in his family and then headed to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in physics at The Ohio State University. After postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago and UC Davis, he landed a job at UCI in 2004.

The segue from India to America hasn’t been entirely smooth. Kaplinghat still grapples with a sense of limbo. “I feel equally at home and not at home in both countries,” he says.

Nevertheless, he enjoys Irvine, where he lives with his Indian-born wife and their 5-year-old daughter, and he says the U.S. affords better opportunities for his research.

As Kaplinghat works with first-generation college students at UCI, his own experience of “outsiderness” no doubt provides a measure of empathy regarding some of the challenges they face. “Many have a tough time transitioning to university life,” he says. “This is why I have been focusing on developing and teaching first-year physics courses at UCI.”

And, of course, he continues to explore “the dark side.” So far, scientists have come up empty in the quest to detect these invisible particles, says Kaplinghat, who thinks a fresh approach is needed. But figuring out a new tack is easier said than done. “How do you find something when you’re not sure what it is you’re looking for?” he asks. “That’s what makes this puzzle both confounding and exciting at the same time.”