Long before the historic announcement in February that physicists had detected gravitational waves from space — a major scientific achievement that made headlines around the world — a young Greek woman named Asimina Arvanitaki had already arrived at a way to do the very same thing, with a far smaller and cheaper experiment involving a microscopic disk suspended by powerful lasers, reports Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail.
In an amazing story that connects an ancient Greek philosopher with a modern day genius, the philanthropic legacy of a world-famous Greek shipping magnate, and the Greek-Canadian creator of the Blackberry, it was announced last week that an $8-million chair has been created in support of Dr. Arvanitaki’s pioneering research at the Perimeter Institute, widely considered the world’s most advanced research center for theoretical physics.
The 36-year-old theorist, known to friends and colleagues as Mina, has become a specialist in thinking up novel approaches to some of of the deepest problems in fundamental physics.
Her passion for understanding the world — and conducting her own personal experiments — came early.
The child of two teachers, Arvanitaki grew up in a small village in southern Greece with an appetite for learning. She recalls that at a young age, she correctly calculated the time it takes light to travel from Earth to the sun – about eight minutes – and was stunned to realize that “we cannot know the ‘now’ of the sun.”
Her focus on finding answers continues to be intense. And for Arvanitaki, when traditional means of discovering something fails, it is time to adopt novel ways.
“This is the story of experiment,” says Arvanitaki. “You just have to look. Even if you don’t find anything, that doesn’t mean you stop. If you don’t look, you don’t know.”
“I just want to know why things are the way they are,” she says. “It’s the ‘why’ that drove me to physics, and still drives me.”
While much of the field of particle physics is concerned with the “high energy frontier,” which requires huge colliders to smash particles, Arvanitaki’s work is at the forefront of an emerging area of research sometimes called “the precision frontier” because it involves making exacting measurements of well-understood phenomena and looking for unexpected deviations from what theory predicts.
“Most of these ideas you can actually build on a table,” says Arvanitaki.
The results of her novel experiments promise to provide new insights into the nature of dark matter, particle interactions, and other deep questions that have evaded researchers employing more traditional means.
DARK MATTER: THE GUITAR STRING THEORY
One such novel approach that Arvanitaki and other physicists have proposed is a new method to find so-called “dark matter.”
As it is understood today, the ordinary atoms which make up our world account for just 5 percent of the known universe. Physicists have termed 70 percent of what’s left over “dark energy,” and another 25 percent “dark matter.” But traditional means have failed to actually detect either the elusive dark matter or the mysterious dark energy, as neither of the two absorb or emit light.
So Arvanitaki and others have proposed reimagining dark matter as a wave, or a bit of both particle and wave, and not just a particle alone.
As one writer describes it, if you pack enough particles — specifically, bosons — into a given space, they will overlap one another and begin to behave like a classical wave. “The question then becomes how to detect it. Waves come in a huge variety of sizes, from low-frequency radio waves the length of a football field, to gamma rays with frequencies the width of atoms. Dark matter waves could conceivably have a frequency anywhere along this enormous spectrum, since we don’t know its mass.”
As outlined by Arvanitaki and her co-researchers in a scientific publication, their proposal — to listen for evidence of dark matter and dark energy — explores the possibility that dark matter could have a form of wave that resonates in the kilohertz range, at a frequency audible to humans or other animals — a possibility that could be tested with existing experimental apparatus at low cost, and yet yield illuminating insights into one of the universe’s most profound puzzles.
While likening it to something like a guitar string, chances are, says Arvanitaki, that it could be a boring and monotonous tone.
“Call it the sound of dark matter,” says Arvanitaki.
Conveniently, Arvanitaki says, experiments around the world are making measurements that could bear telltale signs of dark matter interactions (even if such experiments were not specifically designed for the dark matter search).
“That’s the cool thing about this,” she says. “We don’t need to prove any new technology. Most of the technologies are there already, and it’s taking advantage of the tools developed for another purpose.”
ASIMINA ARVANITAKI, IN HER OWN WORDS
In this rare interview with Maclean’s Zane Schwartz, Arvanitaki talks about the search for “why” behind her work:
What do you see as the practical applications for your work?
“Oh my God. You know that’s the toughest question you can ask a theoretical physicist. The reason I think most of us do theoretical physics is out of a childlike curiosity. We just want to understand why things are the way they are. If you put in your mind a certain very specific technological goal, it’s not always going to get there, but some of the things from a very different perspective may get there faster. For example, take the laser. When the laser was first invented people were like: ‘It’s cool, but what do I do with it?’ Imagine your life without lasers now.”
I ask because governments [today] have a real focus on scientific research that have a direct industry-based application… on things that they think will bring money in…
“Can I say something? I’m Greek and I’m allowed to say this, I think. The model of ancient Greece, right, take Socrates, all these great people, no one asked them to invent the next quantum computer. They were allowed to think about whatever they wanted to, and this is how a great civilization came about. I think leaving people to think, and that doesn’t go just for physicists. I think it applies to everything. It applies to art, literature. I think this is the part that basically makes us human, so I don’t think this is a waste no matter what the outcome. I don’t think this can be a waste.”
FROM A GREEK VILLAGE, TO ATHENS, STANFORD, AND WATERLOO — VIA ARISTARCHUS, NIARCHOS AND BLACKBERRY
Arvanitaki joined Perimeter Institute in 2014, after graduating from the University of Athens, earning her PhD at Stanford University, and doing postdoctoral work as a research associate at the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics under Savas Dimopoulus, a widely respected theorist who also hails from Greece. “She’s one of the most brilliant young people I’ve ever met,” Dr. Dimopoulos says of his former student and collaborator.
One of her ideas was the title of her new position, which has been dubbed the Aristarchus Chair in Theoretical Physics after the ancient philosopher from the Greek island of Samos who famously suggested that the Earth revolves around the sun, some 18 centuries before Nicolaus Copernicus.
“His thinking implied the sun is exactly like the distant stars,” says Dr. Arvanitaki, who suggested the name for the inaugural chair.
She adds that by foreseeing that our solar system many not be unique in the universe, Aristarchus was also setting the stage for a far more contentious theory in current physics, which holds that our entire universe is just one of many.
“It’s a very controversial idea. People hate it, but I find it fascinating,” Dr. Arvanitaki says.
“Asimina is an exceptional physicist,” says Neil Turok, Perimeter Institute’s Director. “Her ideas bridge theory and experiment in new and creative ways. Hers is a rare talent, needed now more than ever, when the field is on the threshold of revolutionary advances.”
Waterloo, Ontario-based Perimeter, the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics, was founded in 1999 by BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe.
Mr. Lazaridis was on hand for Perimeter’s announcement of the new Aristarchus chair.
A BEACON TO YOUNG GREEK SCIENTISTS
At the announcement of the $8 million investment in her research, underwritten jointly by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Perimeter Institute, Arvanitaki said, “The Stavros Niarchos Foundation has given us the opportunity to pursue some of the big questions in physics, and we will do our best to help find the answers.”
The new endowment will also be used to foster research and training ties between Perimeter Institute and Greece, which Arvantaki says will give Perimeter an opportunity to strengthen research and training ties to Greece, where there is a lot of untapped potential.
For Andreas Dracopoulos, the Co-President and Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and his colleagues, Arvanitaki’s appointment serves as a beacon for Greek science students caught in the current economic crisis affecting his country. “Asimina’s work is on the cutting edge of scientific research and carries profound implications for us all,” said Eva Polyzogopoulou, Coordinator of the Education program area at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. “But Asimina’s work is also significant in ways that transcend science and research. As a young scientist, she will be a great inspiration to the youth in her native Greece, who are pursuing their dreams amidst the current crisis.”
“It’s nice to be able to put a little work into trying to help Greece. The talent is there – there are young people that are as smart as in any other place in the world and have a will to produce and work and to dream, and it’d just be nice to be able to help make that dream a reality,” says Arvantaki.
“All I can say, as someone who comes from a small village in Greece, this is something I never dreamed of,” said Arvanitaki, who becomes the first woman to hold a research chair at Perimeter. “The only thing I can honestly say is thank you. Thank you for the privilege of making me part of the team that tries to help Greece in such a time of need.”
Asimina Arvanitaki, on being named the first female research chair at the Perimeter Institute and navigating a male dominated field. Read more at: macleans.ca