Pennsylvania State University

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

Abhay Ashtekar, Evan Hugh Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at Penn State, is interviewed by David Zierler. Ashtekar recounts his childhood in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and discusses his early fascination with physics and the universe. He describes his undergraduate interests in general relativity and the opportunities that led to his enrollment at the University of Texas to join the Center for Relativity. Ashtekar discusses the culture shock when he arrived in Austin and Bob Geroch’s mentorship in quantum gravity, and his decision to follow Geroch to Chicago. He describes his interactions with Chandrasekar and his graduate research on quantum field theory in curved space-times and the asymptotic nature of space-time. Ashtekar discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Oxford to work with Roger Penrose, and he explains the moral origins of his commitment to making his field visible and therefore richer in opportunity for junior scholars. He explains his reasons to return to Chicago for a second postdoc, his decision to join the faculty at Syracuse, and a formative visiting appointment he had in Paris. Ashtekar describes the attraction in joining the faculty at Penn State, and his increasing focus on loop quantum gravity and the intellectual origins of the Ashtekar variable. He explains these developments as part of the broader effort to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity and the implications this will have on our understanding of the Standard Model. Ashtekar surveys the field of loop quantum cosmology and its relation to both inflation and string theory, and he conveys the enjoyment he felt with the detection of gravitational waves. At the end of the interview, Ashtekar explains why he does not like the phrase “theory of everything,” he reflects on the lessons he has learned from the luminaries who have mentored him, and he explains why the field still does not fully understand quantum mechanics.

 

Interviewed by
Maurice Wilkins
Interview date
Abstract

Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; father’s values in contrast with the values of the Polish/Irish community they lived in; unhealthy home environment; life during the Depression; the American Dream and the American West as a symbol of new horizons; perfectibility of human beings; development of views on socialism, fascism, Nazism, communism; usefulness of public libraries; love of nature in contrast to the chaos of the city; high school geometry and algebra; electrons and the fourth dimension; tornados and vortices; movement and being; light as an entity; Pennsylvania State University (1935-1939); friends and rural environment; ROTC training; chemistry and physics courses; introduction to quantum mechanics.