From MIT and Harvard via ozy.com: Women in Stem “This Millennial Might Be the New Einstein” Sabrina Pasterski
JAN 12 2016
Her research could change our understanding of the fundamentals as we know them.
One of the things the brilliant minds at MIT do — besides ponder the nature of the universe and build sci-fi gizmos, of course — is notarize aircraft airworthiness for the federal government. So when Sabrina Pasterski walked into the campus offices one cold January morning seeking the OK for a single-engine plane she had built, it might have been business as usual. Except that the shaggy-haired, wide-eyed plane builder before them was just 14 and had already flown solo. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Peggy Udden, an executive secretary at MIT, “not only because she was so young, but a girl.”
OK, it’s 2016, and gifted females are not exactly rare at MIT; nearly half the undergrads are women. But something about Pasterski led Udden not just to help get her plane approved, but to get the attention of the university’s top professors. Now, eight years later, the lanky, 22-year-old Pasterski is already an MIT graduate and Harvard Ph.D. candidate who has the world of physics abuzz. She’s exploring some of the most challenging and complex issues in physics, much as Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein (whose theory of relativity just turned 100 years old) did early in their careers. Her research delves into black holes, the nature of gravity and spacetime. A particular focus is trying to better understand “quantum gravity,” which seeks to explain the phenomenon of gravity within the context of quantum mechanics. Discoveries in that area could dramatically change our understanding of the workings of the universe.
She’s also caught the attention of some of America’s brightest working at NASA. Also? Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com and aerospace developer and manufacturer Blue Origin, who’s promised her a job whenever she’s ready. Asked by e-mail recently whether his offer still stands, Bezos told OZY: “God, yes!”
But unless you’re the kind of rabid physics fan who’s seen her papers on semiclassical Virasoro symmetry of the quantum gravity S-matrix and Low’s subleading soft theorem as a symmetry of QED (both on approaches to understanding the shape of space and gravity and the first two papers she ever authored), you may not have heard of Pasterski. A first-generation Cuban-American born and bred in the suburbs of Chicago, she’s not on Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram and doesn’t own a smartphone. She does, however, regularly update a no-frills website called PhysicsGirl, which features a long catalog of achievements and proficiencies. Among them: “spotting elegance within the chaos.”
Pasterski stands out among a growing number of newly minted physics grads in the U.S. There were 7,329 in 2013, double the four-decade low of 3,178 in 1999, according to the American Institute of Physics. Nima Arkani-Hamed, a Princeton professor and winner of the inaugural $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize, told OZY he’s heard “terrific things” about Pasterski from her adviser, Harvard professor Andrew Strominger, who is about to publish a paper with physics rock star Hawking. She’s also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Hertz Foundation, the Smith Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
Pasterski, who speaks in frenetic bursts, says she has always been drawn to challenging what’s possible. “Years of pushing the bounds of what I could achieve led me to physics,” she says from her dorm room at Harvard. Yet she doesn’t make it sound like work at all: She calls physics “elegant” but also full of “utility.”
Despite her impressive résumé, MIT wait-listed Pasterski when she first applied. Professors Allen Haggerty and Earll Murman were aghast. Thanks to Udden, the pair had seen a video of Pasterski building her airplane. “Our mouths were hanging open after we looked at it,” Haggerty said. “Her potential is off the charts.” The two went to bat for her, and she was ultimately accepted, later graduating with a grade average of 5.00, the school’s highest score possible.
An only child, Pasterski speaks with some awkwardness and punctuates her e-mails with smiley faces and exclamation marks. She says she has a handful of close friends but has never had a boyfriend, an alcoholic drink or a cigarette. Pasterski says: “I’d rather stay alert, and hopefully I’m known for what I do and not what I don’t do.”
While mentors offer predictions of physics fame, Pasterski appears well grounded. “A theorist saying he will figure out something in particular over a long time frame almost guarantees that he will not do it,” she says. And Bezos’s pledge notwithstanding, the big picture for science grads in the U.S. is challenging: The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey shows that only about 26 percent of science grads in the U.S. had jobs in their chosen fields, while nearly 30 percent of physics and chemistry post-docs are unemployed. Pasterski seems unperturbed. “Physics itself is exciting enough,” she says. ”It’s not like a 9-to-5 thing. When you’re tired you sleep, and when you’re not, you do physics.”
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski (born June 3, 1993) is an American physicist from Chicago, Illinois who studies string theory and high energy physics. She describes herself as “a proud first-generation Cuban-American & Chicago Public Schools alumna.” She completed her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently a graduate student at Harvard University.
Pasterski has made contributions in the field of gravitational memories. She is best known for her concept of “the Triangle,” which connects several physical ideas.
Pasterski was born in Chicago on June 3, 1993. She enrolled at the Edison Regional Gifted Center in 1998, and graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in 2010.
Pasterski holds an active interest in aviation. She took her first flying lesson in 2003, co-piloted FAA1 at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2005 and started building a kit aircraft by 2006. She soloed her Cessna 150 in Canada in 2007 and certified the aircraft she had built from a kit as airworthy in 2008, with MIT’s assistance. Her first U.S. solo flight was in that kit aircraft in 2009 after being signed off by her CFI Jay Maynard.
Pasterski’s scientific heroes include Leon Lederman, Dudley Herschbach, and Freeman Dyson, and she was drawn to physics by Jeff Bezos. She has received job offers from Blue Origin, an aerospace company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Before focusing on high energy theory, Pasterski worked on the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. At 21, Pasterski spoke at Harvard about her concepts of “the Triangle” and “Spin Memory”, and completed “the Triangle” for EM during an invited talk at MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics. This work has formed the basis for further work, with one 2015 paper describing it as “a recently discovered universal triangle connecting soft theorems, symmetries and memory in gauge and gravitational theories. At 22, she spoke at a Harvard Faculty Conference about whether or not those concepts should be applied to black hole hair and discussed her new method for detecting gravitational waves.
In early 2016, a paper by Stephen Hawking, Malcolm J. Perry, and Andrew Strominger (Pasterski’s doctoral advisor of whom she was working independently at the time) titled “Soft Hair on Black Holes” cited Pasterski’s work, making hers the only one of twelve single-author papers referenced that was authored by a female scientist.[non-primary source needed] This resulted in extensive media coverage after its appearance on the arXiv and in the days leading up to it.
Shortly after the 2016 Hawking paper was released, actor George Takei referenced Pasterski on his Twitter account with her quote, “‘Hopefully I’m known for what I do and not what I don’t do.’ A poignant sentiment.” The Steven P. Jobs Trust article included in the tweet has been shared over 527,000 times.
International coverage of the paper and Pasterski’s work subsequently appeared in Russia Today, Poland’s Angora newspaper and DNES in the Czech Republic. In 2016, rapper Chris Brown posted a page with a video promoting Pasterski. Forbes and The History Channel ran stories about Pasterski for their audiences in Mexico and Latin America respectively. People en Español, one of the most widely read Spanish language magazines, featured Pasterski in their April 2016 print edition. [Wikipedia]
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