30 under 30: Exploring String Theory to Figure Out How Things Work

Meet Ioannis Florakis, 29, one of the up-and-coming physicists attending this year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
Greek physicist Ioannis Florakis

Courtesy Ioannis Florakis

The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brings a wealth of scientific minds to the shores of Germany’s Lake Constance. Every summer at Lindau, dozens of Nobel Prize winners exchange ideas with hundreds of young researchers from around the world. Whereas the Nobelists are the marquee names, the younger contingent is an accomplished group in its own right. In advance of this year’s meeting, which focuses on physics, we are profiling several promising attendees under the age of 30. The profile below is the 14th in a series of 30.

Name: Ioannis Florakis
Age: 29
Born: Athens, Greece
Nationality: Greek

Current position: Postdoctoral researcher, Max Planck Institute for Physics and Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, Germany
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Athens, master's and doctoral degrees from Ecole Normale Supérieure (University of Paris)

What is your field of research?
My research focuses in the field of theoretical high-energy physics and, in particular, superstring theory.

What drew you to physics, and to that research area in particular?
I would say that, since a very young age, I had an inherently curious spirit. It was precisely this intrinsic desire to understand “how things work” that drew my attention to physics and mathematics. In particular, I can remember spending my final years before high school graduation struggling to read books on higher mathematics, so that I would apply this knowledge to physical problems. The pleasure gained from the satisfaction of “finding things out” was what made me realize this is the road I would pursue in life. I should also add that a very important element that helped trigger my passion for theoretical physics was my constant impression that high school textbooks were often filled with oversimplifying arguments that I rarely considered satisfactory. My specific choice of research domain (theoretical physics and, in particular, string theory) was largely motivated by the conviction that, despite their apparent complexity, physical phenomena can actually be described in terms of a small set of fundamental principles (i.e. symmetries), which can in turn be re-cast into precise mathematical form.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
It is hard to make predictions about the future, though I certainly aspire to continue contributing to the scientific community. One of the problems that I consider fundamentally important is the study of thermodynamics in the extreme high temperature regime, within the framework of an ultraviolet-complete theory that contains gravity, such as string theory. It appears that various theoretical problems arise in such regimes, where the energy (or curvature) approaches the Planck (or string) scale, the scale where the effects of quantum gravity are expected to dominate. There is also evidence that the correct understanding of string theory in the high-temperature (or high-curvature) regime may provide answers to some of the long-standing problems of cosmology and, in particular, the initial singularity problem. It seems that part of the difficulty of analyzing string thermodynamics in such setups is due to the absence of mathematical techniques adapted for such calculations. My current research essentially aims to develop techniques that will hopefully help treat this long-standing problem.

Who are your scientific heroes?
There are several scientists whose work and, sometimes, whose approach to science and life in general I deeply admire. I could mention, for example, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and Eugene Wigner.

What activities outside of physics do you most enjoy?
One of my favorite musical instruments is the piano, which I have played since an early age. I also have a special interest in listening to classic music records and films.

What do you hope to gain from this year’s Lindau meeting?
Attending the Lindau Nobel meetings is a unique opportunity for any young scientist to meet and discuss with some of the pioneers of the field and profit from their deep physical insight. Personally, I believe that events such as the Lindau meeting help provide a source of considerable inspiration for a young scientist’s work. In this sense, the Lindau experience is unique, in that it permits an interaction of young researchers with the fathers of the field. I am certain that the discussions will influence my own views and ideas in a way beneficial to my research. In addition, it will also provide an excellent opportunity for me to meet and interact with other young researchers.

Are there any Nobelists whom you are particularly excited to meet or learn from at Lindau?
David Gross and Martinus Veltman are two of the Nobelists that will be present in Lindau this year and whom I am particularly looking forward to meeting. Their deep and important contributions to perturbative and non-perturbative quantum field theory and theoretical physics, in general, are well-known and now constitute standard textbook material. It will be a rare occasion for me to meet them in person.

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13. Vinamrita Singh
30 Under 30:
Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
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15. Meredith Frey


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