At age 28, theoretical physicist Dr. Zohar Komargodski became head of a research group in the Institute's Particle Physics and Astrophysics Department. A recent paper, published with Prof. Adam Schwimmer of the Physics of Complex Systems Department, made some waves in the physics world with a proposed proof of a 23-year-old theorem. If the proof stands, it will have implications for many fields, including the analysis of LHC results and supersymmetry. Komargodski and Schwimmer claim they had been kicking around various ideas for a proof for several years before the solution came to them - while contemplating a sunset together on an Aegean beach.
We recently interviewed Komargodski:
WSW: You are fairly young to be head of a research group.
ZK: I completed a very significant fraction of my B.Sc. in high school (in an accelerated program through the Open University), and I completed my Ph.D. two years earlier than what's considered standard. I also did a pretty short postdoc (at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) before coming back... I guess this accounts for 5-6 years in total?
WSW: What led you into theoretical physics in the first place?
ZK: I actually got really fascinated by physics after reading Hawking's A Brief History of Time.
This must have been around 1998, when I was 15 or so. Since then I have been totally immersed in grappling with the principles of theoretical physics (and mathematics... since our subject requires a lot of advanced mathematics).
WSW: How did you get into the Cardy conjecture?
ZK: Various people in the field of theoretical (high energy) physics have spent some time thinking about this problem at one point or another. For one thing, it has been around since the 80s. With time, more and more confidence has built up concerning its validity, as people have checked it using various examples. I, too, had been thinking about this problem here and there (especially when I found myself stuck on other fronts). Last summer we had a stroke of luck, and everything clicked and fell into place.
WSW: Are you still following up on this proof?
ZK: People have been interested and some are working on spin-offs. The proof has been reviewed by various people and it has withstood some scrutiny by us as well as by other people. Only time will tell whether there are loopholes, but so far it is looking good. I am thinking about many related subjects at the moment; it really did open up new horizons for me. I think there is interest in the community, too.
WSW: We have written that your main focus is supersymmetry. Can you give me an explanation of your research "on one leg" as it were?
ZK: My main subject is particle physics. Supersymmetry is basically a very strong added principle (more precisely, an added symmetry -- which means more ways to tackle hard problems) to particle physics that simplifies many things drastically. This is why the subject is so popular and powerful. It allows one to study interesting problems in a very controlled setting, where a lot of things can be analyzed and solved.
I have been focusing on supersymmetry for some years, but now I feel that I should tackle harder problems too, and indeed, I am spending most of my time thinking about general topics in particle physics, not necessarily those associated with supersymmetry.
It should be noted that if supersymmetry is discovered (for example, it is being searched for nowadays in the Large Hadron Collider), that would be a revolution in physics on par with the great revolutions of the early 20th century. Supersymmetry is basically the statement that bosons and fermions, objects which are traditionally completely disparate, are actually ultimately related. This would be a true unification of the principles of physics.
BEN:::thought you might be interested
Classic instance of the "release-of-effort effect." Two scientists working hard on a problem, take some time to relax, and happen to bring up the problem in a relaxing atmosphere: Bingo!, a possible solution becomes clear.
The moral of the story, for scientists and others who are reading this, is that taking deliberate time off, to just contemplate the sunset, or goof off with your dog or whatever, is good for making progress on whatever you're working on.
I'm doubtful that cognitive science has a decent explanation for this, and one functional explanation is as good or bad as another. But I'd hazard a guess that any substantial change in state of consciousness is accompanied by a change in perspective that enables a problem to be viewed freshly, at which point new insights can emerge and be examined. This doesn't require any woo or nonsense, and is easily tested on whatever it is you're working on. (There are also recent findings to the effect that taking frequent short breaks from work improves productivity: something that may be a subordinate case of the same type.)
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