Arvanitaki Gets Perimeter Institute Chair

WATERLOO, CANADA – On April 28, the Perimeter Institute announced the inaugural Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Aristarchus Chair of Theoretical Physics, Asimina Arvanitaki.

The collaboration between Perimeter and the SNF is an $8 million initiative that will have far-reaching effects in the world of theoretical physics as well as the world at large.

As Perimeter’s Founder Mike Lazaridis said at the event, “today’s theoretical physics becomes tomorrow’s technology.” He also remarked, “Perimeter Institute is creating a series of prestigious chairs in theoretical physics, named after some of the most important and innovative physicists in history. Like those physicists who made discoveries that have changed our world, we believe these Perimeter chair holders will help accelerate transformational research breakthroughs.

“One of our greatest strengths is our recruitment of brilliant young scientists, often just entering their peak years of research productivity, and whose work promises important breakthroughs. Asimina is an exceptional scientist who has already made significant contributions to her field of particle physics – she devises and employs novel methods, bridging theory and experiment to examine and decode the building blocks of nature. We are very pleased to have her on our faculty at Perimeter and extremely appreciative of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s generous support of her chair.”

Among the honored guests and those attending the event were SNF co-President and Director Andreas Dracopoulos, Perimeter Managing Director and COO Michael Duschenes, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and Canada’s Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan.

In his speech introducing Arvanitaki as SNF’s inaugural Aristarchus Chair in Theoretical Physics at Perimeter, Dracopoulos commented on the extraordinary collaboration between the two, seemingly unrelated organizations, noting that Perimeter and SNF had more in common than meets the eye, “both, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation are not-for-profit organizations which share a mission, that of trying to improve society at large; they were both formed quite recently, in the late 90s, and both believe in the multiplying effect of positive collaborations.”

Dracopoulos mentioned the assessment of the Perimeter grant proposal by SNF Education Program Coordinator Eva Polyzogopoulou, who found Perimeter’s “uniqueness as a research institute lies in its core philosophy, which is based in the belief that science can only progress when young qualified minds are given the freedom and space to devote themselves to their research and tackle the deepest questions. Focus is given to inspiring and training the next generation in order to drive innovation and lead to breakthroughs.”

The Greek-born Arvanitaki studied at the University of Athens, and then went on to graduate school at Stanford University in California where she earned a PhD and was a research associate at the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics. One of the brightest minds in the field, Arvanitaki joined Perimeter in 2014. She summarized her work as “particle physics without the colliders.” She went on to say, “I was raised to do particle physics beyond the Standard Model – supersymmetry, extra dimensions, theories of dark matter, and the like. For the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by new ways to test such theories.”

Her research on dark matter, along with that of her collaborators at Perimeter was recently published in Physical Review Letters and marks a fascinating development in the quest to detect the elusive dark matter.

For those with only a smattering of physics knowledge, dark matter comprises most of the universe, but remains elusive for those attempting to study it. Research into dark matter, which emits no light nor absorbs light, is now focusing not on seeing it, but on hearing it. The thought behind new ways of detecting dark matter revolves around the idea that it might behave more like a wave than a particle, or even like both. Particles, bosons specifically, when grouped together act like a wave. The sound of dark matter could then be detected with existing experimental devices, depending on the frequency of this theoretical dark matter wave.

Arvanitaki said, “call it the sound of dark matter. It would be a very boring, monotonous tone.” Since matter often interacts with its environment in more than one way, physicists suspect dark matter also interacts more than just gravitationally on its surroundings. So far, the gravitational effect on its surroundings is the only hint that dark matter exists. Experiments conducted in other parts of the world could be picking up traces of dark matter, even if the experiments were not intentionally looking for it. Arvanitaki noted, “That’s the cool thing about this. We don’t need to prove any new technology. Most of the technologies are there already, and it’s taking advantage of the tools developed for another purpose.” SNF’s support in establishing the Aristarchus Chair will allow Arvanitaki and her collaborators to continue the experiments in search of dark matter. As Arvanitaki observed, “this is the story of experiment. You just have to look. Even if you don’t find anything, that doesn’t mean you stop. If you don’t look, you don’t know.”

Arvanitaki told TNH how special a day it was for her and that it felt like an out-of-body experience. She went on to say what an honor it is for her to be chosen by SNF and Perimeter. Arvanitaki hopes their support and promoting outreach and education, especially science education in Greece, will benefit the many gifted, young students and scientists there. She observed that many Greeks are doing great work in all fields of science and it is important to continue to support education and expand opportunities especially in times of crisis.

Dracopoulos remarked on the far-reaching effects of Arvanitaki’s work: “her work will also create a pipeline with Greece that will allow fellow Greek students and scientists to become more exposed to the Perimeter’s research endeavors and to benefit from them, thus being very impactful especially during those very difficult times in Greece given the deep socioeconomic crisis that has engulfed the country for the last 7 years.”

Arvanitaki, the first woman to hold a research chair at Perimeter, spoke eloquently at the event. “All I can say, as someone who comes from a small village in Greece, this is something I never dreamed of. The only thing I can honestly say is thank you. Thank you for the privilege of making me part of the team that tries to help Greece in such a time of need.”

Perimeter Institute continues to draw gifted physicists from around the world, including Arvanitaki. It was founded in 1999 by Lazaridis, the Greek-Canadian who also founded Blackberry, and who continues to fund the cutting edge research at Perimeter along with a public-private sector partnership, and serves as Board Chair and Leadership Council Founding co-Chair. His initial personal contribution of $100 million in 2000 helped establish a world-class research facility to foster breakthroughs in physics and share the power of theoretical physics with the world.

According to the Perimeter website, “Foundational theoretical physics is a cornerstone of modern quantitative science, on which so much else rests. The field advances our fundamental understanding of the universe, and its powerful ideas seed the technologies of tomorrow. Solar cells, computers, GPS, wireless technologies, and diagnostic imagery – they are all rooted in breakthroughs made by theoretical physicists.”

With promising minds like Arvanitaki at work and a commitment to sharing research with the world, the Perimeter Institute in collaboration with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation will build a brighter future for all. In his concluding remarks at the event, Andreas Dracopoulos addressed all those at the Perimeter Institute, “…Keep imagining, keep looking, for the good of all humankind, thank you!”