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Professor Vazquez-Poritz Wins NSF Grant for String Theory Research

When Justin Vazquez-Poritz read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time as a teenager growing up on Cape Cod, it swept away his previous ideas about becoming an architectural engineer, video game programmer or musical director for film scores. Inspired, he began reading intensively in his high school library about the warping of space and time, and his excitement about physics grew into a career.

This fall, Mexican-born Vazquez-Poritz, now a physics professor at City Tech, was awarded a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $60,000 entitled, “Constraining Gravity Dual Models of Strongly Coupled Plasmas,” to conduct research in string theory. In addition, Nobel laureate David Gross has named him a 2010-2012 Scholar at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) in Santa Barbara, California.

String theory is based on the notion that every object in our universe is composed of microscopic vibrating filaments (strings) of energy. Scientists like Dr. Vazquez-Poritz hope that string theory will unlock one of the mysteries of the universe, that is, how gravity and quantum physics fit together.

“String theory remains the leading candidate for a ‘theory of everything,’” explains Dr. Vazquez-Poritz, “capable of describing everything from quarks to black holes.” He is using string theory to understand the properties of a new form of matter, the quark-gluon plasma, currently being produced by such particle colliders as the one at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The plasma, at least a thousand times hotter than the core of our sun, is essentially a microscopic version of the early universe.

“A better understanding of this plasma will provide us with a clearer window into the beginning of the universe itself,” says the scientist, who now resides in Guttenberg, New Jersey. “There is a deep but not yet well-understood mathematical connection between the quark-gluon plasma and black holes.”

Dr. Vazquez-Poritz explains how he became fascinated with string theory: “Writing down arcane equations in order to understand the universe at the deepest level seemed rather magical to me.”

At Cornell University, an undergraduate course with string theory proponent Brian Greene inspired him further. “I enrolled in his class, and the more we talked about bizarre concepts like higher dimensions, the more enticing it got!” He went on to earn his doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote his dissertation on string theory.

To win the prestigious NSF and KITP awards, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz, whose work has taken him to Belgium, Italy and China, among other locations, competed with applicants from some of the country’s best universities and research centers. “It was especially gratifying to win,” he says, “because the NSF had a particularly limited budget in 2010 and awarded fewer grants.”

At City Tech, which he joined in 2008, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz teaches nine different physics courses. In one, he uses an online teaching tool, which enables his students to simulate landing a lunar module without crashing. He also teaches “Quantum Theory of Fields” at The City University of New York Graduate Center and has created a new course on string theory that he will teach there in spring 2011.

Author or co-author of 47 papers on various aspects of theoretical physics including gravitation, string theory, quark physics, cosmology, astrophysics and differential geometry, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz currently is publishing papers with Dr. Roman Kezerashvili (City Tech Physics Department Chair) on formulating ways in which solar sails could be used to test certain predictions of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

City Tech’s Dean of Arts and Sciences Pamela Brown had this to say about Dr. Vazquez-Poritz’s achievements: "Albert Einstein searched 30 years for a unified field theory — one underlying principle linking all forces. Theoretical physicists may one day soon solve this problem using string theory. Professor Vazquez-Poritz has already discovered how to combine excellence in research, teaching and a commitment to our students. He exemplifies the best City Tech faculty members have to offer."

Dr. Vazquez-Poritz has collaborated with scientists from, among other institutions, Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania and Central University in China. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati and Texas A&M University, and a visiting scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. 

He also is an active mentor of undergraduate researchers in the College’s LSAMP (Louis Stokes New York City Alliance for Minority Participation) and Emerging Scholars programs, with good reason: he wants to spread his enthusiasm.

“I enjoy it when my students show scientific curiosity,” he says. “When I draw connections between the course material, black holes and the expansion of the universe, they suddenly sit straight up and start asking question after question. This is when I know I have them hooked, which is quite satisfying, because after all, I'm hooked as well!”


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