Diana Vaman / Physics

In the Spring of 2012 semester, I will be teaching a course titled “Introduction to String Theory” (PHYS 5120). This is a course which is not offered regularly, and last time I taught it was three years ago. To my surprise, a few undergraduate students from my Quantum Physics I class, found out about it, and asked me to teach it again. They told me that there are already 6 undergraduate students who would like to take this “Introduction to String Theory” class, if given the chance. Of course, I said, I would be delighted to do it. This subject is closely related to my research which connects particle physics to strings and black holes. In broad strokes, my research concerns the fundamental structure of matter: the elementary particles and their interactions. According to the Standard Model of Particle Physics, the interactions between quarks (elementary particles which make up the nucleus’s constituents, the proton and neutron, as well as other composite particles like pions) are described by the theory of strong interactions. This theory is notoriously difficult to solve analytically. A new approach is based on the remarkable idea that precisely when the interactions between particles are strong, a dual description becomes available, in the guise of a theory of gravity/strings in extra dimensions, where the interactions are now weak and analytic results are possible. At finite temperature, a plasma of strongly interacting particles is the hologram of a black hole. This is the theoretical playground of my research.

For my Mead program “Dream Idea”, I would like to propose further developing this course. There is already a textbook (by B. Zwiebach from MIT) which makes string theory formalism accessible to an advanced undergraduate audience. However, I would like to give the students the opportunity to pick a few string-theory related topics of their choice, and, after a rigorous introduction in the subject, spend a few lectures talking about the topics they chose. I look forward to find out what topics they want to hear about, since these must have captured their imagination, and prompted them to learn a rather difficult subject.

Since this is intended as an advanced level class, the course will end with each student giving a presentation. Based on this presentation, class performance and homework, the best student(s) will be given the opportunity to participate in one of conferences organized by the American Physical Society (SESAPS Fall 2012 meeting, or Future of Physics meeting; the latter are organized in the Spring only), or do research over the summer with me. Participation in an APS conference can serve a dual purpose: if the students already have some research results to report, then they have a forum to disseminate their findings.

On the other hand, if the students are just beginning their research, they can still attend the conference and draw benefits from it. The “Future of Physics” conferences are specifically aimed at an undergraduate audience; besides undergraduate research talks, there are round tables with senior researchers, where the students can learn firsthand about the professional trajectory of people who found a calling and a career in Physics. They will also meet and interact with students from other universities. The SESAPS meetings are regional meetings with participants from South-East universities. There are overview lectures and advanced research talks in various Physics sub-fields, and, as well as graduate and undergraduate student talks. The Fall 2011 SESAPS meeting is in Roanoke, organized by Virginia Tech. The Fall 2012 host university has not been decided yet.

Alternatively, the students can choose to do Summer research with me, after completing the “Introduction to String Theory” course. Summer research is a structured activity; the students are given a topic to study and an adequate research project. We will meet weekly (once or twice) for the duration of Summer. The student(s) will get the chance to continue their study, and hopefully contribute to a research paper.

The budget for my “Dream Idea” is as follows: one or two $1200 summer research stipend(s); alternatively, $1500 travel and accommodations for two students to a regional APS conference. In addition, I would like to request up to $500 to be used for an end-of-semester “Strong Correlations” dinner. [The title is a play on my research, where correlations in strongly coupled systems are computed using the unraveled hologram: gravity in extra dimensions.]