NSF Awards Grant for Research on String Theory, Black Holes

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Vatche Sahakian, associate professor of physics at Harvey Mudd College, was recently awarded a continuing three-year, $90,000 grant by the National Science Foundation for his research titled “Quantum Information in Matrix Black Holes and Black Hole Horizons in String Theory.”

Sahakian’s ongoing project explores key ideas in string theory and quantum gravity, including the accounting of information in black holes, the nature of the black hole horizon and the development of numerical techniques to address certain fundamental puzzles arising in black hole dynamics.

“It’s very unusual to have undergraduate research in string theory,” he says. According to Sahakian, there are just a few hundred active string theorists in the world. Because it is a niche research field, he says, it attracts few students, but those it does attract typically demonstrate extreme dedication and move into top-tier graduate programs. Gregory Minton ’08, who conducted research with Sahakian on a new approach to understanding inhomogeneities in the cosmic microwave background using string theory, was a finalist for the prestigious LeRoy Apker Award, given annually by the American Physical Society for outstanding achievement in physics by an undergraduate.

Undergraduate research is an integral part of Sahakian’s new NSF proposal, along with outreach components that aim to bring modern topics in theoretical physics to the general public in an accessible framework. The project includes a course development component for an undergraduate course on modern topics in theoretical physics, providing students with solid foundations for graduate school, and the associated preparation of an undergraduate textbook on classical field theory.

A public lecture series will also be implemented, bringing accessible presentations of modern physics topics to the wider community. Sahakian’s previous NSF-funded lecture series, which explored the intersection of theoretical physics and philosophy, was very well received.

Harvey Mudd is one of the few colleges where students have the opportunity to conduct original research in string theory and to publish their results in leading journals.