Wednesday, March 23, 2011

S.T. Yau - The String Man

Always on the look-out for a rousing mathematics lecture, I caught scent of something special brewing earlier this year when I heard about a talk by Harvard Professor of Mathematics Shing-Ting Yau sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM). I’d heard of Professor Yau from his Calabi-Yau manifolds fame and I was particularly anxious to see him in person. I've always admired Yau for helping pave the way for the hot field in theoretical physics - string theory.

I arrived at the venerable lecture hall in Haines Hall on the university campus in Westwood and I could see by the size of the room that a large crowd was expected. I wasn't mistaken, place was packed. I arrived early to find an optimum seat front and center. I noticed all the luminaries filter in as the time for the lecture approached – professors, graduate students, postdocs, and other cognoscenti. Soon the room was full and Dr. Yau was introduced. 

The title of the lecture was “THE SHAPE OF INNER SPACE: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions” which is the same as his new general audience book with the same title (see inset link). Yau proceeded to describe one of the smallest things you can possibly imagine—six-dimensional geometric spaces that may be more than a trillion times smaller than an electron—could, nevertheless, be one of the defining features of our universe, exerting a profound influence that extends to every single point in the cosmos. Yau told the story of those spaces, which physicists have dubbed "Calabi-Yau manifolds."  In his illustrious career, Yau managed to prove the existence, mathematically, of those spaces, despite the fact that he had originally set out to prove that such spaces could not possibly exist. This mathematical proof, which had initially been ignored by physicists (partly because it was steeped in difficult, nonlinear arguments), nevertheless made its way into the center of string theory, which now stands as the leading theory of the universe and our best hope yet of unifying all the particles and forces observed—and yet to be observed—in nature.

After the lecture at the reception in the IPAM building, I got to chat with Dr. Yau and expressed my appreciation for his work. I told him about my metamorphosis a number of years ago when I attended a book tour talk by Dr. Brian Greene who successfully turned my intellectual curiosity to string theory. He seemed to like my comment indicating that such public events can excite the general public to such a degree. There’s power in spreading the word about math and physics.

Click here to listen to Yau's talk and here is a link to Yau's slides for his presentation.