Pursuing his Passion: Arpan Saha, Aspiring Physicist

This piece follows the ‘Why Students do not study at IIT-Bombay?’ article that was published in the January ’13 (15.2) issue of InsIghT. We speak to Arpan Saha who tells us how he pursues his passion for physics, at times, even at the expense of his academics.


What are you passionate about?

Arpan Saha, 4th year undergraduate, Engineering Physics

Arpan Saha: Broadly speaking, I’m interested in theoretical physics. Any further specificity of taste within that is essentially a consequence of relative familiarity with certain topics over others. For instance, since I started out by reading up on differential geometry, I have had a preference for areas that draw heavily from it, namely general theory of relativity, Yang-Mills theory (this is, in some sense, a generalisation of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism) and topological quantum field theory (in which topological invariants become dynamical entities; this has been the source of some of the most profound and deepest insights into both mathematics and physics).

To be even more specific, at the moment I’m interested in the ramifications of a remarkable observation by Juan Maldacena in 1997 – a theory with gravity on a special kind ofspacetime called anti-deSitter spacetime is ‘equivalent’ to a scale-invariant theory without gravity sitting on its boundary (which is basically our usual flat spacetime along with a surface at infinity). This correspondence, referred to as the AdS/CFT correspondence or gauge-gravity duality, has been instrumental over the last decade in helping physicistsunderstand certain aspects of condensed matter systems and quark-gluon plasmas that werehitherto intractable using previously existing methods. In fact, in the limits that the earlier methods broke down, these reduce to classical gravity in one dimension higher, which people understand rather well in comparison to even cases far away from those limits. Yay!

How much time do you spend on an average acting on your passion?

A.S.: Pretty much most of my waking hours. In fact, it’s probably easier to answer how much time I don’t spend on it, especially as I’m currently working on a project involving AdS/CFT at TIFR. Any estimate I make at the number of hours I spend on it will tend to be flawed because a) I’m very bad at making such estimates – something always seems to be playing havoc with my temporal perception <insert relativity joke here>, and b) I don’t demarcate between times when I’m doing physics and when I’m not. After all, it’s theoretical physics – you carry your ‘laboratory’ in your head.

Is it affecting your academics? If so, by how much and does it bother you?

A.S.: Sigh, to an extent, yes. I’m very, very vulnerable to nerd-sniping*. With endsems round the corner, I really have to be studying for them, but there are just too many interesting and wonderful problems out there to busy myself with. But to be fair, courses aren’t always orthogonal to the kind of stuff I’m into. In such cases, even when I’m not paying attention todetails, it doesn’t take too much effort to absorb the general structure of the course on the night before a quiz/exam because I’ve seen similar ideas elsewhere and can form a quick intuitive picture of what’s going on. As to the question of how much of that translates into actually performing well, that is another story, I fear.

Does it bother me? Not much at the moment, but it will soon enough, when I’ll have to start apping. As much as I’d like to fantasise otherwise, grades do form an integral part of the grad school application and shoving them into the closet of dark things humanity is better off not thinking about isn’t something I’ll recommend, even though I’ve been guilty of it many times over.

Speaking at the Scitech Majlis at IIT Bombay

What are your expectations from IITB in terms of helping you in realizing yourpassion?

A.S.: I’ve done some of my best thinking while talking, i.e. engaging in exposition and heavy-dutydiscussion with people who have a better understanding of physics/mathematics than me. This is often accompanied by frantic waving of hands and borderline shouting matcheswhich, I assure you, are indispensable tools for anyone who wants to do physics. Funding and equipment aren’t issues of much concern to a theorist, but for the fantastic peer group (and professors, of course!) IITB’s given me, I’ll continue to sing glorious hymns to her forever!

What do you see yourself doing once you are out of this place?

A.S.: Moar physics! To be slightly more concrete, I see myself doing a PhD, followed by a couple o’ post-docs** here and there, before settling down with a nice assistant professorship somewhere, and in the process, working on more challenging problems and gaining deeper insight into what makes the Universe so damned beautiful.

* http://xkcd.com/356/
** I mean, doing post-doctoral research-work, not colleagues in post-doctoral positions.