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‘A Physicist Has to Be a Romantic’

Alexey Starobinsky, Professor of physics at HSE University and Fellow of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Science

Alexey Starobinsky, Professor of physics at HSE University and Fellow of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Science
© HSE University

Alexey Starobinsky, a professor of physics at HSE University and a fellow at the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Science, has been awarded the Dirac Medal of the ICTP, a prestigious prize awarded annually by the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics. HSE News Service spoke with the laureate about his path to international recognition, his students, and the award.

The professor accepted congratulations alongside his colleagues, Vyacheslav Mukhanov of the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich and Rashid Sunyaev of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics at the Russian Academy of Science. The medal and prize were awarded to them for their ‘outstanding contributions to the physics of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) with experimentally tested implications that have helped to transform cosmology into a precision scientific discipline by combining microscopic physics with the large-scale structure of the Universe.’

The Dirac Medal is an important award in the global physics community that is awarded annually by the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. The award is named in honor of the scientist Paul Dirac, a Nobel laureate and one of the creators of quantum mechanics. Since 1985, the Dirac Medal (which includes a cash prize) has been awarded every year on August 8, the scientist’s birthday. Until 2018, medal recipients included 12 Russian scientists and 63 scientists from other countries.

On the Award

In order for you to understand the importance of this event for me, I should note that the Dirac Medal is unofficially considered the most prestigious award in the field of theoretical and mathematical physics. In this field, Soviet and Russian scientists have always been at the forefront. Soviet and Russian physicists and mathematicians such as Yakov Zeldovich, Nikolay Bogolyubov, Vladimir Zakharov, Yakov Sinai, for example, have received this award.

Earlier, I became a laureate of the Gruber Prize in Cosmology, which is the most important prize in cosmology, and I also received the Kavli Prize, the highest award in the field of astrophysics. The Dirac Medal is a recognition of my merits precisely by theoretical physicists.

When I first heard the news that I had been awarded the medal, my first thought was, ‘I have lived long enough!’

Indeed, for proper recognition of one’s scientific merits, one must live long enough. These are not empty words: many prominent scientists who worked in the same field as me did not manage to receive such an award in their lifetimes—scientists such as Vyacheslav Mukhanov’s co-author, Gennady Chibisov, as well as Stephen Hawking.

On the Beginning of the Journey

My parents were radio physicists. True, my father died very early, when I was only two years old. I graduated from a physics and technology school, where I developed an interest in mathematics and physics. I did well in the Olympiads. I will not say that I was a particularly outstanding student. But I had various successes. In 1966, I graduated from high school and entered the physics department of Moscow State University. I was considering the possibility of applying to the physics and technology department, but it was farther away from home, and I didn’t want to have to live in the dormitory.

I was born in Moscow and have lived here all my life. I began my studies close to home. While I was a student, it turned out that I had more success in theory than in experiments, so by my third year at MSU I decided to go into theoretical physics. Everything became clear when my professor, Krivchenko, the author of the well-known exercise book on quantum mechanics during those years, recommended me to Yakov Zeldovich (a Soviet physicist and physicochemist, and a fellow of USSR Academy of Science – editor’s note). And, since 1970, I have been a part of his team. As a part of his team, I immediately became engaged with the birth of particles in cosmology. This work later came in handy in two projects in 1973 on the superreflection of waves and the production of particles by rotating black holes, and (more importantly, since my main interests were in cosmology) in my works on inflation theory, which I began in 1979. My first work with Zeldovich on the birth of particles in cosmology, which is highly cited, was in 1971. I was still a student then—I graduated from the physics department at the beginning of 1972.

On Working in Russia and Abroad

The Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Science has two departments, the main one of which is located in Chernogolovka. But in reality, I am only there once a week, so you can say that I mainly worked and work in Moscow. In addition, however, I travelled abroad a lot for research, sometimes for long periods of time, sometimes for short periods of time—to France for six months, or to Japan twice a year, for example. Never in my life did I aspire to take a permanent position in the West or the East. I always preferred temporary positions abroad, which are more difficult to get. They do not really like having just temporary visitors. They prefer having you for three years, after which you then have to search for your next position on your own. I think that it’s not worth leaving for longer than a year. I look at others, and it seems that people who leave Russia for more than a year lose their ability to live here. There are some unique aspects to Russian life; we are used to them, but foreigners are not used to them at all. And those of us who live abroad for a long time, with rare exceptions, lose our ability to live here.

On His Students

Among my students were and are very famous people. Unfortunately, the most talented of them, Lev Kofman — he became a distinguished member of the American Physics Society before I did, for example — died of cancer at the age of 53. Lev worked in the USA and Canada and was the deputy director of an important astrophysics institute in Toronto. But, in fact, he was one of us – he was Soviet, from Estonia, from the University of Tartu. I have many foreign students. And I see that foreign students are more active than Russian students. They take initiative and come to me, asking me to give them a task. Russian students are more concerned with securing good positions. Many of my students are Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and Iranians. They also want to get good positions, but first they want to do important scientific work. Our Russian students want to find good jobs with good salaries; I don’t sense a desire in them to undertake great work. The main thing a young scientist needs is the desire to make a big discovery. Of course, not everyone succeeds in this, and I can’t guarantee it. But if a person does not have the desire, he will end up leaving fundamental science and end up doing something else, of course—in a university, where they are enough teaching positions, or in business.

On Hawking

I have talked with many great scientists in my lifetime. One of them was Stephen Hawking. It is believed that he knew everything about black holes. But there is no special mystery there. There are classical effects—we are now measuring them, including, for example, the radiation of gravitational waves when two black holes merge, or the shadow of a black hole. There are quantum processes; another thing is that they are negligible.

What do we not know? That which we do not see—what happens beneath the event horizon of black holes

But Hawking offered nothing new or correct with regard to this question. He insisted for a very long time on his idea that there was a true loss of information. At the end of his life, he rejected this idea and was convinced otherwise. The essence of his idea was that information falls into a black hole and disappears there. In fact, information simply ends up beyond the event horizon, but this does not mean that it has disappeared. Relatively speaking, the information simply accumulates in that storage area, to which we do not have access. But just because you cannot access it doesn’t mean that the information has disappeared. It remains there. But he insisted that, in principle, it disappears, and he attempted to substantiate this at a fundamental level. In his later years he himself rejected this, which was very unpleasant for him insofar as he considered himself to be smarter than other scientists. He thought that everything he said was right. But in reality, he ended up having to admit that he was wrong two times, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I also made mistakes, as well as others, and usually it is no cause for drama. But for him it was painful. He had a theory that if the universe expands and then contracts, it will collapse, and then time will begin to go in the opposite direction, and entropy will begin to fall instead of grow. Then he himself found a flaw in his argument and began writing that it was his greatest mistake. In other words, it was a bit of a painful experience for him.

On Zeldovich

I was greatly influenced by Yakov Zeldovich’s way of thinking and working, but at the same time I was also influenced by my circumstances at the Landau Institute and the style of the Landau school, which is more mathematically rigorous. Zeldovich had his own style. In particular, he believed that rigorous evidence was not needed if a quantitative result was somehow obtained — that was all. Sometimes this is right, sometimes not. Experience shows that there is no definite answer and that you need to keep your eyes open.

Zeldovich and I worked together for 18 years. There were periods when he cooled towards me and worked with others, but I did not take it to heart

However, I was never a subordinate to him administratively; I answered to the director of the Landau Institute. And the last work that we completed two weeks before his death was a co-authored article, rather, a summary of an American conference, which was then published in Nature. It was then that he travelled to the US for the first time, and I went with him.

He’s given me a lot, but what exactly, is not so easy to say. Sometimes I literally developed some of his ideas, and sometimes I proved his hypotheses, but by my own methods. So I believe that my scientific style developed out of a combination of two different styles — Zeldovich and the Landau school. I personally did not know Landau. When he got into that tragic car accident, I was still in grade school; when he died, I was a university student. I interacted a lot with his colleague, Isaac Khalatnikov. He was my director for 15 years.

On the Difference Between Physicists and Mathematicians

Physicists ripen later, unlike mathematicians. In mathematics, in view of its greater abstractness, one’s abilities in the field must manifest themselves on their own—speak for themselves. It’s like being a violinist—while you can improve your abilities with other instruments with practice, to be a violinist, you have to be talented from the beginning. In physics, work experience is more important, which mathematicians do not really need. In sciences like biology, experience has more importance—you have to learn about what is in nature. It is not an innate skill.

On the Confluence of Sciences

Chemistry has grown strongly into physics; in a sense, it takes from physics what physics itself borrows from computer science — more complex calculations, and that which happened as a result of the progress of computer science and computers. Now it has become possible to do more complex calculations, and those things that we previously understood only intuitively and qualitatively can now be calculated. A lot of new experimental data has appeared in biology, enjoying the same opportunities.

On Romance in Physics

A physicist has to be a romantic. One example of this is Zeldovich. Unlike Hawking, he did not think that everything was in his head. He thought that you need to constantly look for new things in nature, and in this sense, he was a really big romantic. Hawking didn’t need scientific journals; it was difficult for him to read, and he kept everything in his mind. Zeldovich, however, was the first to rush to a newly released issue of a scientific journal and look at what new experimental and observational data was in there. He always proceeded from experiment, observations.

On the Future in Cosmology

I actively continue to do research. I work with scientific groups in Russia, Italy, France, Japan, India, and other countries. Our theoretical model of the structure of the universe is closely related to observational astronomical data and the results of ground-based experiments at accelerators and other facilities. And we get more and more new information, so I do not have to rest on my laurels.

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