Wolfger Peelaers Q&A: Exploring the Building Blocks of Nature
STONY BROOK, NY -- Wolfger Peelaers completed his PhD in Stony Brook’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, where he was part of the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics, in August 2015. His area of research is theoretical high energy physics, and more specifically the study of supersymmetric and superconformal quantum field theories. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University.
How did you come to study theoretical physics?
Theoretical high energy physics has the ambition to answer a very elementary, but profound and all-encompassing question: what are the basic building blocks of nature and how do they interact? While this ambition goes back to early Greek philosophers like Empedocles, Plato, Leucippus and Democritus, it is only in the last century that we have incrementally obtained a model accurately describing almost all experimentally observed non-gravitational subatomic processes. Nevertheless, many fundamental questions remain – for example how to include gravitational interactions consistently.
This search for a so-called theory of everything, pursuing the reductionist paradigm to its endpoint, has always fascinated me deeply. My interest was fueled even more by reading books popularizing this endeavor; further, the exact language used in this line of inquiry, namely mathematics, has a strong appeal to me.
How did you come to study theoretical physics?
The very process of exploring and discovering the inner workings of nature, or, more generally, of various idealized models of nature, excites me most. The word “exploration” is very appropriate in this context since it is often the case that when setting out to tackle a specific problem, one unexpectedly stumbles into beautiful structures, or uncovers surprising connections between various disparate strands of physics and mathematics – all of which can be explored. Ultimately this process of exploration and discovery should result in a complete understanding of nature and of various interesting nature-like models.
At a more concrete level, I always find it quite exciting when all pieces of a computations come together, click in place, and reveal the complete picture of the problem at hand.
What have you found surprising?
I find it somewhat surprising that very complex phenomena of nature are typically described by a very elegant framework or by compact equations. While obtaining such elegant formulations may not be straightforward, they are often a plentiful source of new insights and understanding.
Working in the language of mathematics often poses a challenge because it often requires one to learn new mathematical concepts, theories or results in order to continue pursuing a particular question.
The most obvious challenge I encountered is that concrete computations are often tedious and technical in nature, requiring patience and persistence. Working in the language of mathematics often poses a challenge because it often requires one to learn new mathematical concepts, theories or results in order to continue pursuing a particular question. A third challenge is the necessity of developing intuition to identify promising directions of research and to extract the key insights from concrete computations. These challenges are part of the appeal theoretical physics has to me.
Your nomination letters touch on your work as a teacher and science communicator– how has teaching changed or shaped the way you approach research?
It is often said, and sometimes (incorrectly) attributed to Albert Einstein, that you don’t understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother or to a six-year-old. In this vein, teaching has been beneficiary to me because it has challenged and thereby deepened my understanding of the subject matter, and has required me to reconsider and sometimes rethink the basics of a subject.
How did you settle on Stony Brook for your doctoral research?
Stony Brook University has two very vibrant and active research centers in theoretical physics: the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. The prospect of performing my doctoral research in this lively scientific environment was my main motivation in choosing Stony Brook.
How did your program help equip you for success?
In various ways, but most importantly by offering many excellent classes in all subfields of theoretical physics. Together with a year-long reading class on supersymmetry and supergravity with Professor van Nieuwenhuizen, these classes have given me a solid foundation on which to build my own research.
Starting on day one, I had ample opportunity to attend talks and seminars by leading scientists and participate in workshops and programs on recent developments in theoretical physics. Initially by osmosis and later on by active assimilation, I have learned about a wide variety of cutting-edge theoretical research.
What advice would you offer students interested in pursuing graduate work in physics?
If their interest is combined with a willingness to put in the necessary work, they should definitely go for it. A graduate degree in physics is not only the gateway to an academic career, but, thanks to the versatile training one receives and the analytical and computational skills one learns, it also opens up many opportunities in the private sector.
You have a postdoctoral fellowship in the New High Energy Theory Center at Rutgers University – what’s your focus there?
At the NHETC, I continue my study of theories that possess additional symmetries— supersymmetry, conformal symmetry or a combination thereof – and thereby are more amenable to an exact, analytical treatment.