PRINCETON, N.J. – Princeton University is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the entire world. Recently, we interviewed Stefanos Aretakis, an Assistant Professor of Mathematics whose interests include differential geometry, analysis of PDEs, and general relativity. The interview follows:
TNH: Where were you raised and how you came about creating this niche for yourself?
SA: I was born in Athens in 1987 and stayed there until 1997 when my family moved to Rio (a suburb of Patras). My father, who is a high school mathematician, played a crucial role in my early development as a mathematician in the sense that his teachings laid the keystone for the choice of my field of study. I strongly believe that it is the combination of the constant support and help from my father and my innate passion for mathematics that allowed me to eventually pursue a competitive career as a mathematician.
Indeed, when I was just 12 years old, I myself realized that solving problems using the laws of mathematics gives me the greatest happiness and joy. My father’s role was to expose me new problems and keep me mathematically active. Why is mathematics joyful?
First of all, it is not just the moment of the resolution of a math problem that brings us joy. On the contrary, we extract joy from the every single stage of our interaction with the problem, from the first to the last minute.
Understanding all the players in a problem, their properties and their relations and trying to use the universal laws of mathematics to obtain the desired results is a very exciting experience.
For us the mathematicians it is a unique experience that has no analogue in other life activities. During this highly intellectual process, your mind simply forgets about the surroundings and focuses on the world that is governed by the players of the problems.
Intuition, which is so important in all of science, is simply about creating an imaginary picture about this world; a picture that allows you to see the interaction of all the involved players.
TNH: How hard is for someone so young to accomplish such an achievement in such a short period?
SA: I finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Patras (GR) in two years during which I had the opportunity to interact with many great mathematicians. The professors there strongly encouraged me to accept an offer for graduate studies at the University of Cambridge (UK).
In 2006, therefore, I moved to the UK. During that year, I had the chance to study advanced mathematics and to interact with many brilliant students and Professors from all over the world.
But, most importantly, I had the greatest luck to meet Professor Mihalis Dafermos with whom I subsequently did my PhD. Professor Dafermos is a worldwide leading researcher and an exceptional supervisor.
He spent countless hours explaining to us his results, ideas and future directions for study. After finishing my PhD at Cambridge, I moved to Princeton University as an instructor, and currently I am an assistant professor. I believe there are three keys in accomplishing such an achievement: 1) determination-motivation-passion, 2) exploring new directions, 3) support from other people.
TNH: What are your research interests?
SA: I am mainly interested in mathematical problems that arise in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. General relativity describes the evolution of systems under the effect of gravity in terms of a system of very complicated differential equations (known as the Einstein equations).
These equations have very rich structure from both a mathematics and physics point of view. For example, they predict the existence of black hole regions and gravitational waves (the detection of which has recently been on the news). As a mathematician I study the mathematical properties of these equations such as the stability of black holes, the formation of spacetime singularities and the scattering of gravitational waves.
The end goal is to discover new physical phenomena; for this reason, I find this mathematics research area extremely interesting and exciting.
TNH: What you currently working on?
SA: I investigate radiative properties of hyperbolic equations which are intimately connected with stability considerations for black holes and the propagation of gravitational waves.
TNH: Have you ever thought of going back to Greece to help with your expertise?
SA: Of course. My home, my parents are all in Greece. I have thought about going back to Greece, but unfortunately this is not going to happen for various reasons. At the moment there are minimal opportunities in Greece. Greece has so many talented students.
Unfortunately there are no opportunities for these students in Greece. On the other hand, it is very easy to create opportunities here in the United States. So, instead of us going back to help with our expertise there, what is really happening is that we bring here the best minds of Greece and provide them with opportunities to help them ascend the scientific ladder.
TNH: Do you think that Greek education is in great need for research excellence in order to be a leader rather than a follower in innovation?
SA: Yes, of course. The society should give incentives so the best Greek researchers stay in Greece. Professors should be competitive in a worldwide level.
They should maximize the amount of research funds they apply for so they can provide research positions to young scientists. We live in a period where the world gets more and more connected. This of course is very beneficial for Greece, provided that research there keeps up with that in other developed countries.