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Dr. Arlie Petters is a Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Business Administration at Duke University. Petters’s research on gravitational lensing deals with how light is affected by the warping of[…]

The mathematical physicist reflects upon his untraditional math and science education in Belize, and talks about how Einstein’s theory of relativity is a “profound connection” that can inspire young people.

Question: What are you trying to establish about the universe in your work? 

Arlie Petters: To find a scientific way to test whether there is an extra dimension, whether there is a fifth dimension. The problem is, imagine if you live on the surface of a sheet of paper and you can’t get off it. How do you know there is such a thing as "off" the sheet of paper? We cannot come out of length, width, and height. Even saying that sounds a little crazy, right? Well the way that we approached this problem was if you have a fifth dimension, then there’s supposed to be black holes called braneworld black holes that come from that dimension. And if one of them enters out world, it’s going to have a signature in light. It will have a gravitational lensing signature. And we had to develop a whole mathematical theory for how you classify that signature. The signature turns out to be a very elegant prediction, a wiggle in the energy spectrum of light that would be specific to that kind of black hole. 

Question: When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist? 

Arlie Petters: I think it has to do with the story of art, the story of looking at the night sky and my high school math teacher. I always wanted to be an artist, and as a kid I drew for many, many hours. And I realized that the moment of peace, when you’re sketching, it felt so good. And would you believe that that same experience that I had when I looked at the night sky and when my geometry teacher began telling us about all these beautiful theorems, and so that "eureka" was seeing beauty in places that seemed totally disconnected.  

I would say that the feelings I got from geometry classes and the feelings I got when looking at the night sky, and the deep mystery of it just being what it is, I believe that that connection was the thing that hooked me. I always wanted to be able to have that type of feeling. It’s a bit like a painter, right. You struggle and it’s not always a nice feeling because it’s going back and forth. But at the end of the day, you are creating something that moves you deep in side. That I believe is the experience that allowed me to do this for so many years and not get burned out with it. 

Question: Was there something in your education that ignited your passion for science and math? 

Arlie Petters: Growing in Dangriga, Belize, I really was in a home with my grandparents. They never went to high school. And therefore, when I had to do my homework and all of these things, for the most part, I was left all alone. But one thing I know that was very helpful with being self-taught, mathematics is such a rigorous and, in some ways, unforgiving medium that it allows you to quickly see when you are going down wrong paths. If you make an illogical step, you will see the error and it brings you right back on the straight and narrow. 

Question: Would a privileged education have directed your career differently? 

Arlie Petters: I believe that my path would have been quite different. Being forced to teach yourself, you are able to learn things that are quick for you and things that are harder for you to digest. And, in a sense, it allows you to develop the game plan that is tailored best for your intellectual orientation. That’s how I see it personally. 

Question: How can we inspire young people to get excited about math and science? 

Arlie Petters: Well you know one of the profound connections for me was actually with Einstein’s Theory. This is generally viewed as an exotic area of knowledge: space and time bending. You hear about black holes, right? And all of this stuff. And you sort of feel, these are some out yonder-type individuals just pursuing in a self-indulgent manner. But when you discover that you have to use this exact theory—in fact it’s with the one with black holes—for you to set up GPS technology, that to me is a very profound connection. And it’s the kind of connection that I think interests young people. When they see that deep mathematics, deep ideas in physics actually can help planes land in bad weather. 

Question: Did you have role models who influenced your decision to become a scientist? 

Arlie Petters: I had several role models as a kid and I will say one of the early ones was definitely Einstein. What I loved about him is that he was not afraid to go into the unknown intellectually. And in a sense, imagine the pioneers heading West, right? You must be afraid of the Rockies and then you hit desert, but he has the perseverance and the bravery to be able to go into these type of terrain. And that inspires you as a young person to not be afraid. 

Question: Why is math important? 

Arlie Petters: I feel that math is a great unifier. It is in astronomy, it's in aesthetic balances in art, and, in particular, Dali is one artist that had a profound influence on me. And if you look at his crucifixion painting you see Christ is actually crucified on a cross that is an unfolding of a four dimensional object. Where did the Dali learn that? It came from mathematics. 

Question: How can scientists inspire young people? 

Arlie Petters: I believe you pick things in the world that’s amazing. For example, here in New York, I would walk them around and show them the skyscrapers, and I would ask them questions. If a strong hurricane comes here, will it tip over? Because you are wondering, right. They are tight and what makes it stand up? It’s amazing, beautiful trigonometry that’s right there in the structural stability of skyscrapers. And then they’ll see the plane flying ahead. Say, would you like to learn the principles that govern flight? That then opens your eyes to worlds that each one of us, scientists or not, are mystified by.
Recorded on April 19, 2010