“By the mid-1970s it [Iran] had become a showcase of development among the Third World countries, boasting one of the highest rates of economic growth and a superior record of social services. It had developed the critical mass of educated people needed for takeoff in science and technology. It was also making steady progress in fields ranging from women’s rights and environmental protection to intercultural and cross-cultural communication to literacy and lifelong education, among others. As a result of these and other changes the country was a “brain-gainer” in 1975, attracting educated workers to its growing economy, a situation then unprecedented in the Third World. The new Islamic regime . . . turned the brain gain into brain drain.”—Gholam Reza Afkhami, The Life and Times of the Shah
Astrophysicist Niayesh Afshordi is a native of and grew up in post-revolutionary Iran. In our conversation that follows about the physics of the early universe, Afshordi also comments on post-revolutionary Iran’s brain drain. His own scientific career is a case in point.
Niayesh Afshordi graduated in 1999 at the top of his class with a BA in physics from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology. During his undergraduate years he was a gold and silver medalist in national and international physics Olympiads. After graduation he promptly left Iran for more opportunity in the West and postgraduate studies at Brown University, receiving his PhD in astrophysics in 2004 from Princeton University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Institute for Theory and Computation. Afshordi now teaches at Canada’s Perimeter Institute—one of the world’s leading theoretical physics centers—as well as at University of Waterloo, considered the MIT of Canada.
But it hasn’t been easy for Afshordi outside Iran either, even as a distinguished scientist. Afshordi says although he doesn’t have as many immigration problems now, it has been difficult for him when applying for visas to go anywhere—to international scientific conferences, to visit national labs, even to visit the US where he received his PhD. He says he knows of many Iranian academics here in the West who have “those sorts of problems.”
Some of Niayesh Afshordi’s scientific awards include: Buchalter Cosmology Prize (2015, with Elliot Nelson); Professor M.K. Vainu Bappu Gold Medal (from the Astronomical Society of India, 2008, and in 2011 jointly with Nissim Kanekar); 1st Place, National Collegiate Physics Olympiad (1999, Iran); Silver Medal, 27th International Physics Olympiad (1996, Norway); Gold Medal, 8th National Physics Olympiad (1995, Iran) (partial list).
Aside from his current positions at Perimeter and Waterloo, Afshordi has taught at Guelph-Waterloo Physics Institute, and at Princeton, Brown, and Sharif universities, among others. He been a guest lecturer at Harvard University and at the University of Waterloo.
His research focus is astrophysics, cosmology and fundamental physics. Since there has been considerable media spin that our universe is a vast hologram, citing a study (still ongoing) by Afshordi, and Kostas Skenderis and colleagues at the University of Southampton, I asked Niayesh Afshordi if he would give me his personal perspective about the evidence. I reached him recently at Perimeter Institute for comment.
Suzan Mazur: Your undergraduate degree in physics is from Iran’s top science school, Sharif University of Technology. Why don’t we hear more in the West about scientific research in Iran, aside from reports about Iranian nuclear technology?
Niayesh Afshordi: That’s a very good question. I suppose the reason is that nuclear research—which is really technological, rather than scientific—people care about that because of its political and military implications. Nuclear research is separate from the vibrant scientific atmosphere prevalent in the top universities in Iran that doesn’t make for the sexiest headlines.
The generation of scientists coming up in Iranian universities is not to be underestimated. There are already a significant number of Iranian academics at Western universities.
Of particular note, our friend Maryam Mirzakhani was the only woman ever to win the Fields Medal —considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics. She did her bachelor’s degree at Sharif University, the same school where I did my undergrad work. Maryam was most recently at Stanford. Sadly, she died last year, at age 40.
People who do come to the West from Iranian universities may not necessarily work on the most headline-grabbing topics. A lot of them are actually here in the West because of various geopolitical and financial conditions. They can’t be very productive in Iran. So a lot of us are here in the West, and some of us are very successful.
Suzan Mazur: Who owns the rights to scientific research done in Iranian universities?
Niayesh Afshordi: That’s a good question. For most of my academic life I’ve been outside Iran. I did limited research as an undergrad in Iran. As far as I know, in Iran the rights for academic scientific research not involving profit, belong to the scientists themselves.
If someone works at the atomic agencies, that’s a separate story. I don’t have too much insight into it. . . .
Suzan Mazur: Why did you choose Canada as your base following your doctoral studies at Princeton and your postdoc at Harvard?
Niayesh Afshordi: I applied for a faculty position at many places, as did my wife. The place where we could both find a job was here in Canada. Canada was our best option.
Suzan Mazur: Is your wife a physicist also?
Niayesh Afshordi: Yes, she’s a physicist.
Suzan Mazur: There at Perimeter Institute and University of Waterloo?
Niayesh Afshordi: She has an affiliation with both Perimeter and Waterloo, yes.
Suzan Mazur: What is her name?
Niayesh Afshordi: Ghazal Geshnizjani.
Suzan Mazur: Some of Perimeter’s funding has come from the Templeton Foundation.
Niayesh Afshordi: That’s right.
Suzan Mazur: Is your current research funded by Templeton?
Niayesh Afshordi: No.
Suzan Mazur: How close is the goal of combining Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics? Something Kostas Skenderis at the University of Southampton has described as a new paradigm for physical reality.
Niayesh Afshordi: We don’t know. Physicists have been chasing this goal for the past 80 years. We’d like to think that we’re closer than before. There have been new insights, theoretical and observational insights. But whether those are real, it’s difficult to say.
Suzan Mazur: Your holographic universe research has been widely touted as “the first observational evidence that our universe could be a vast and complex hologram.” Would you say that that is an accurate description?
Niayesh Afshordi: I think that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. It is the first possible holographic description of our observed universe. There is evidence but it’s not necessarily very strong evidence.
Suzan Mazur: You’ve also said that we are living in 3D:
“I can jump up and down, I can go back and forth, I can go left and right. There are three dimensions out there. I can again say that with confidence.”
But Leonard Susskind has said it’s not clear which is the 3D reality, this one we think we’re experiencing or the one out there in space. Would you comment?
Niayesh Afshordi: Yes. These are not inconsistent statements. The thing is we have a perception for everyday life. That perception may be complete and useful for our applications, like if I want to say, drive to work or drive home, or eat food, and basically everything else in everyday life that I’m interested in—the three-dimensional description of the universe is a good description.
However, there could be applications in very extreme circumstances. For example, very close to the Big Bang or Black Holes the three-dimensional description of the universe is not a very useful description. There could be other descriptions that are more useful. I can make more predictions using those descriptions. It all basically comes down to the difference between the fundamental reality and the practical reality.
For practical reality of our everyday life, three dimensions seems to be sufficient and accurate. But for the fundamental reality, it’s very hard to tell and we don’t know. We don’t really have access to the fundamental reality of space and time. That’s the question of quantum gravity, the question that has eluded us for the past 80 years. What is the fundamental reality of space and time? There are various theories but there is no definite conclusion about that.
Suzan Mazur: Despite the fact that the Fermilab Holometer experiment did not find evidence of the space-time jitter it was looking for, Fermilab astrophysicist Craig Hogan, who first envisioned the project, said he nevertheless continues to regard space-time as jittery, made of waves, and so he’s now reconfigured Fermilab’s instrument to probe further. Do you share Hogan’s perspective? And what instruments are you relying on for your measurements?
Niayesh Afshordi: I do share the qualitative perspective that space-time is made out of jitters. In a sense that’s been the lesson of quantum mechanics, that everything we perceive around us is jittery. Quantum mechanics has been very successful in describing the universe on small scales. That’s how we have cell phones. Computers. Internet. Everything is based on quantum mechanics around us. Quantum mechanics essentially is a jittery description of reality because everything is uncertain and fluctuating.
The problem is how it applies to gravity. That’s the part that different people disagree on. I think Craig Hogan’s perspective is a minority one. Most people don’t share Hogan’s particular thinking about the geometry of space. But everybody in the mainstream of theoretical physics believes, and physics for that matter, as far as I know, everybody believes that the smallest scale is jittery. The question is exactly what probes of that jitteriness we can use.
I have a different approach, which is less controversial. I look at the light that comes from the Big Bang, at cosmic background radiation. The light that surrounds us. Its temperature is something like -270° Celsius [-454° Fahrenheit]. Most cosmologists think this is the light that came from the Big Bang and the most direct evidence we have from the Big Bang.
Suzan Mazur: Where are your measurements coming from?
Suzan Mazur: But your holography collaboration with the University of Southampton is an ongoing research project?
Niayesh Afshordi: It is. But I’ve kind of decoupled from it. My former student, Elizabeth Gould, is now a postdoc there. She’s working on the project.
Suzan Mazur: I interviewed James Simons for my 2014 book on origin of life and asked him to comment on the Fermilab experiment. He was surprised to hear about the Holometer probe and told me he continued to think we live in 3D. However, in 2016 the Simons Foundation committed $10 million to further investigate the holographic principle. How does what you’ve been doing at Perimeter and Waterloo differ from what Simons is exploring?
Niayesh Afshordi: The Simons holography collaboration you’re talking about is clearly different from the Fermilab probe, although they’re both rooted in holography.
Suzan Mazur: I’m referring to the “It from Qubit: Quantum Fields, Gravity and Information” Simons collaboration. Matthew Headrick is deputy director of the project, which involves 18 scientists.
Niayesh Afshordi: I do know about that program. “It” means everything including gravity and “Quibit” is quantum information. Rob Myers from Perimeter is actually part of that team.
As I said, both the Fermilab and Simons Foundation-funded programs are rooted in holography but “It from Qubit” is more theoretical in the sense that it doesn’t have specific experiments it is testing.
The Simons collaboration is more a mathematical construction that relates theories that have gravity to theories that don’t have gravity. It is basically an idea in mathematical physics. The thinking is there is some mathematical equivalence between theories that have gravity and theories that don’t have gravity but have information in some sense.
Suzan Mazur: Even though you have “decoupled” from the holography research, do you see this as an emerging field, much like origin of life emerged a half dozen years ago with Harry Lonsdale’s philanthropy?
Niayesh Afshordi: I think it’s been an emerging field of research for the past 10 years. It’s basically been happening for the past 15-20 years. Probably 20 years is more accurate. It was started by Juan Maldacena, who’s now in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. So it’s been ongoing and has taken various shapes and forms.
Suzan Mazur: Maldacena is also one of the Simons Foundation investigators on It from Qubit. As is Susskind.
Niayesh Afshordi: This idea of It from Qubit. Where it’s going to go in the future is hard to say. I personally think physical theories have to connect with data for them to actually be physical. So if it doesn’t make a connection with observation or experiments, then at some point it becomes irrelevant.
Suzan Mazur: Is that why you’ve stepped back, “decoupled”?
Niayesh Afshordi: I have been working on a part of this that is connected with data. It’s something I’ve been working on with Elizabeth Gould and Skenderis. So that part could survive, depending on how the data goes. The thing about connecting with data is that the data may confirm your theory or rule out your theory. If the theory is ruled out, it of course becomes irrelevant and we move on.
What is dangerous is that some theories can’t be tested, can’t explain anything and can only survive as zombies. I avoid these. I try to work on theories that connect with observation, that can be tested by observation that either confirms or rules them out. That is how you can make meaningful progress.
Suzan Mazur: Great. Thank you. Is there a final point you’d like to make?
Niayesh Afshordi: When it comes to the origins of the universe, there are lots of ideas that are out there. I don’t think any of us are really committed to any of them. Some might be more committed than others. I personally, for example, have five or six different theories for the Big Bang and don’t have any ideological commitment to any of them.
At the end of the day the question is, can data confirm one of them or will data rule out all of them? Then we have to move on to something different. That’s roughly the goal for us as cosmologists and physicists. To go out, test hypotheses, rule out the ones that don’t agree with data and keep the ones that can objectively explain the universe.