‘Research in India happens in a few elite institutions’

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SHIRAZ NAVAL MINWALLA:‘Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries, whereas India runs on a shoestring.’
SHIRAZ NAVAL MINWALLA:‘Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries, whereas India runs on a shoestring.’

Shiraz Naval Minwalla , a professor of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, won the New Horizons in Physics Prize for 2013 on November 5. The $100,000 prize, which recognises “promising researchers,” is awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, which was set up by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in 2012. Dr. Minwalla has been cited for his contributions to the study of string theory and quantum field theory, especially in improving our understanding of the equations governing fluid dynamics, and using them to verify the predictions of all quantum field theories as opposed to a limited class of theories before. On November 12, he was also awarded the Infosys Foundation Prize in the physical sciences category. Here are excerpts from an interview done on Tuesday with Vasudevan Mukunth , through Skype.

Why are you interested in string theory and quantum field theory?

In the last century, there have been two big developments in physics. The quantum revolution, which established the language of quantum mechanics for dealing with physical systems, and the general theory of relativity, which established the dynamic nature of spacetime as reality in the world and realised it was responsible for gravity. These two paradigms have been incredibly successful in their domains of applicability, and they have been individually confirmed. Yet, we have no way of putting them together through a single mathematically consistent framework. I work with string theory and quantum field theory because I think it is the correct path to realise a unified quantum theory of gravity.

What’s the nature of your work that has won you the New Horizons Prize?

The context for this discussion is the AdS/CFT [anti-de Sitter conformal field theory] correspondence of string theory. AdS/CFT asserts that certain conformal quantum field theories admit a reformulation as higher dimensional theories of gravity under appropriate circumstances. Now it has long been expected that the dynamics of any quantum field theory reduces, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. If you put these two statements together, it should follow that Einstein’s equations of gravity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics.

The improved understanding of the equations of hydrodynamics applies to all quantum field theories, including those like quantum chromodynamics that are of interest to real world experiments. I think this is a good, though minor, example of the impact of string theory on experiments.

What do you think about the Fundamental Physics Prize in general, and about what Yuri Milner has done for the world of physics research?

As you know, Milner was a PhD student in physics before he left the field to invest in the Internet, etc. He said he left because he felt he wasn’t good enough to do important work. So, he said one motivation was that people who are doing well needn’t found Internet companies. Second, he felt that 70 or 80 years ago, physicists were celebrities who played a large role in motivating young people to do science. Nowadays, there are no such people. I think I agree. Third, Milner is uniquely well-positioned because he understands physics research — because of his own background and he understands the world of business.

If I had a lot of money, this isn’t the way I would have gone about it. There are more efficient ways. For instance, more smaller prizes for younger people makes more sense than few big prizes for well established people. Some of the money could have gone as grants. The fact is Milner didn’t have to do this but he did. It’s a good thing.

Are the Fundamental Physics Prizes bringing more favourable attention you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise?

Of late, it has become fashionable to attack string theory in certain parts of the world of physics. It is nice to see there are people who think differently.

What are your thoughts on the quality of physics research stemming from India? Are there enough opportunities for researchers at all levels of their careers?

Well, string theory work done in India is pretty good. If you compared the output from India to the U.S., the work emerging from the U.S. is way ahead qualitatively. But if you compared it to Japan’s output, I would say it’s clear that India does better. Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries, whereas India runs on a shoestring.

The striking weakness of research in India is that research happens in a few elite institutions. But in the last five years, it has been broadening out a bit. TIFR and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute [HRI] have good research groups; there are some good young groups in the Indian Institute of Science [IIS], Bengaluru; Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; some groups in the Chennai Mathematical Institute, IIT-Madras, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Kanpur, all growing in strength. The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, has also made good hires in string theory. The good thing is young people are being hired. What is striking is we don’t yet have participation from universities; there are no string theorists in non-elite institutions. This is in striking contrast with the U.S., where there are many groups in many universities, which gives the community great depth of research.

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Interview with Professor Shiraz Naval Minwalla



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