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Across the Universe

Alexander VilenkinFor Tufts cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, the toughest questions are his favorite ones to try and answer.


When the sign on the map says "You Are Here," what does "here" mean? How did you get there? And how many "heres" are there, anyway? These are the types of questions that Tufts cosmology expert Alexander Vilenkin, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and head of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, explores on a daily basis.

Last year, in his book "Many Worlds in One," Vilenkin detailed his theories on the explosive process of "inflation" that sparked the Big Bang and the notion that multiple regions identical to ours exist in remote parts of the universe. [read more] Last week, Vilenkin discussed these topics and more at the Dean's Faculty Forum, an event organized by School of Arts & Sciences Dean Robert Sternberg to highlight faculty research and ideas. [watch]

We spoke with Vilenkin about his background, his theories and his motivation for studying the mysteries of the universe.

On his interest in cosmology:

I was interested in physics when I was in high school. I read some books on the general theory of relativity and some papers by Einstein, and doing cosmology was my dream ever since. Cosmology studies the history of the universe, how the universe came about and how it evolved. I thought these were the most intriguing questions of all, and if you can study them, why do anything else?

"When you really understand something, and you finally see the thing in a different light and you learn something about the universe, it's extremely exciting."

On the nature of his work:

I think it's like any job. Most of it is not very glamorous. Much of it is just doing hard calculations. Like any scientist, to be successful you really have to be obsessed with what you're doing; otherwise you wouldn't spend all these hours banging your head against the wall and doing the calculations. But when you really understand something, and you finally see the thing in a different light and you learn something about the universe, it's extremely exciting.

On coming to the United States and Tufts:

I came to the U.S. [from the Ukraine] in '76. I was really surprised that I didn't experience any disadvantage as a foreigner. I got to graduate school right away and managed to get my Ph.D. in one year. I was in a hurry because I was a little old for the game. I was 26 and usually you get to graduate school a little earlier than that; I wasted some time going to the army and then waiting for permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

I got my degree, but it was a time when getting a job in physics was not easy. On top of that, very few people worked in cosmology and it was pretty hopeless to get a job in that field. So my Ph.D. thesis was not on cosmology, it was on the physics of biopolymers, like DNA. In the course of my emigration I met a famous scientist-refusenik Mark Azbel, who was working on DNA and was kind enough to work with me. That was my initiation into the craft of physics and it was very useful. I continued with biopolymers in my Ph.D. research, and after a year of postdoc I was hired at Tufts [in 1978] as a condensed matter physicist. All along I was doing research in cosmology in my spare time.

That first appointment at Tufts was a visiting professor position for one year, and then I applied for a regular job. At that time, I 'came out of the closet' and said 'Okay, I'm interested in cosmology,' so the talk I gave here when I applied was on my cosmological research. That was a risky move, but luckily I did get the job.

Alexander Vilenkin

On the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, founded in 1989:

There was this eccentric guy, Roger Babson, who made a lot of money in the stock market. I think he was the first to start collecting statistical information about businesses and publishing a newsletter. He claimed that he made much of his money applying Newton's law of gravity to the stock market—what goes up, comes down. He later decided to give some money to universities for research in antigravity because he thought that if antigravity was discovered, that would help prevent aircraft accidents. The gift [in 1961] came with the 'Antigravity Stone', which now stands in the middle of the campus, near the library and University chapel. A couple of years after I joined Tufts, someone came to me and said, 'Are you working on antigravity?' I said, 'No, I'm not working on antigravity, I'm working on gravity.' In the end the Babson money went to establish the Tufts Institute of Cosmology.

The funny thing is that we do work on antigravity now, because in the new theories of cosmology, the key concept is the so-called inflation and inflation is the very rapid accelerated expansion of the universe propelled by a repulsive gravitational force. So we do work on antigravity, as Babson wanted us to. We did not get to preventing airplane accidents though.

When someone gets a Ph.D. in cosmology, our group goes to the antigravity stone for a little ceremony. The student kneels in front of the stone and the adviser drops an apple on the student's head. (continued)

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Interview by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photo by Jodi Hilton for Tufts University

This story originally ran on Nov. 12, 2007.