Physics professor earns US Fulbright Scholarship & international acclaim
by Sage Wesenberg, Biochemistry, 2019
Northeastern Professor Tomasz Taylor is a master of theoretical elementary particle physics, and his successful career reflects that. As a recent US Fulbright Scholar and foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, Taylor’s current and past work is being recognized across the world for its importance in the world of theoretical physics.
Theoretical elementary particle physics’ main goal is to understand the very basic building blocks of matter, what they do, and what forces they interact with through creation of mathematical equations. Particle physicists are interested in understanding not only what’s inside an atom, something everyone knows exists, but what’s inside the nucleus of the atom, and what makes up those elementary particles. They break down everything to smaller distances than even detailed microscopes can visualize. Because these sub-particles are so small, research relies on “atom smashers” to break apart the atom to understand how the small structures work and interact with each other through forces.
Taylor grew up and attended all of his schooling in Poland. He received his professional education and PhD in physics from Warsaw University in 1981. Taylor described growing up in Poland very different than the way students grow up today. “Back then, there was a genuine respect for science and it used to be something that was cool. This pushed my interest in science throughout school, even at a young age,” he said.
After school, Taylor went to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois where his most influential work was performed. In 1986 as a junior researcher, Taylor and colleague Stephen Parke, discovered what is now known as the Parke-Taylor MHV amplitudes. These amplitudes describe collisions of elementary particles through a simple mathematical equation. At the time, there was not much understood about this field of work. Their research was done in preparation for a super-collider that was to be built in Texas, but it was never constructed. The Parke-Taylor amplitudes remained puzzling to many. “Our work was showing that things people think are very complex could be put into simple terms – beautiful and elegant mathematical formulas,” Taylor said. It was not until the early 2000’s that their discovery began to have an impact. Theoretical physicist Edward Witten allowed for the explosion of this field of physics, and he was able to do that with Parke-Taylor amplitudes as the foundation.
In order to make his work on amplitudes more mainstream, Taylor broadened his research to supergravity and superstring theory. “Northeastern has always had an internationally renowned elementary particle theory group active in this area, so it was a natural place for starting an academic career,” Taylor said. He has been here since 1989, teaching in the Department of Physics, continuing his research endeavors and publishing many influential papers.
This past spring, Taylor was recognized at a conference held by the Fermi National Laboratory. The 30-year anniversary of the discovery of Parke-Taylor MHV amplitudes was celebrated as a part of the heritage of the history of work accomplished there. Many influential and active researchers came in to share their current research, much of which would not have been possible without the amplitudes. In the keynote address, Professor Nima Arkani Hamed from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton called Parke-Taylor amplitudes “one of the most important discoveries in theoretical physics of the past three decades.”
Taylor’s work has also earned him election as a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Taylor is one of 38 foreign members of the Division of Exact and Technical Sciences of this academy, five of which are Nobel Prize winners. Election into any of the academies of science around the world is very prestigious and a great honor. Through the academies, scientists can promote their research, the importance of scientific discoveries, as well as advise government bodies, and be representatives for communities of science.
Next week, Taylor will begin his sabbatical leave in Poland. As a recipient of the US Fulbright scholarship, Taylor will be working with faculty and students at Warsaw University as a representative of American scientists to promote science in a foreign country. He will teach a course “Introduction to Amplitudes.” While there, Taylor will also continue his current projects, trying to understand the nature of gravity. In particle physics, everything boils down to only a few forces of elementary particles interacting with each other. These forces are categorized as either strong or weak forces. Strong forces are nuclear forces, those that are responsible for the formation of the nucleus through protons and neutrons coming together. Gravity however, is a weak force comparatively because, while essential to life on earth, it operates at such different distances than nuclear forces. It becomes negligible at a subatomic level when compared to electric and nuclear forces. And so Taylor is curious as to why these gravitational forces are so weak at this level compared to other forces. He hopes to be able to find gravity’s similarities to nuclear forces and be able to describe it in the same language as the standard model of elementary particles.
Taylor made sure to point out that while this research may not have any practical applications right now, there is always a chance that it someday might. He said, “In eighteen hundreds, the concept of electric and magnetic forces has led to understanding of light and electromagnetic waves – leading to electricity, radio, and telephone. 200 years later we are sitting here in a better world because of research that was done without ideas of its application. I can’t promise that my research is going to have an application, but it might.”