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Eva Silverstein and the new generation of string theorists

Eva Silverstein with her favorite equation
Eva Silverstein with her favorite equations

Eva Silverstein graduated from Harvard in 1992 and earned her Ph.D. at Princeton in 1996, studying with Ed Witten. She's earned countless awards already in her exciting career. She's currently enjoying the San Francisco Bay Area as an assistant professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

String theory has survived long enough to become a multigenerational enterprise. Can you give us some reflections on being a member of the “younger generation” in string theory?
Play sound It's true, string theory is a large, multigenerational collaboration aimed as solving a very fascinating ambitious set of problems. In that way it's a lot like a high energy experimental collaboration except without the hierarchical organization. While it's true that most of the crucial groundwork on perturbative string theory has already been paid by the older generations, many of the most basic questions remain unanswered, and those of us in my generation are beginning to make independent progress on those questions. I've personally had the privilege of working closely with some others in this generation, such as Shamit Kachru, Ofer Aharony, Albion Lawrence, Micha Berkooz, and others, and it seems to me there's a great deal of energy and talent in our generation, which bodes well for the future.

When did you first become interested in physics, and when did you first consider that you might become a physicist yourself?
Play sound I first became interested when I learned what physics was some time in high school. I had a very interesting high school physics teacher. I had always enjoyed math and physical science and when I saw the power of physics to explain and predict physical phenomena through simple principles and calculations, I became hooked. I was especially fascinated by special relativity, which starts from a simple physical principle that the speed of light, and in general all laws of nature, are the same in all reference frames, and derives through simple high school algebra amazing consequences such as the fact that time slows down in moving frames. When I realized that one could produce such things full time and actually make a living at it, I never really looked back.

What advice would you give to someone pondering graduate study in theoretical physics? Is there anything about graduate school you know now that you really wish you had known when you started?
Play sound Well, grad school is on the one hand a tremendous opportunity, which gives people a chance, usually for the first time, to sample different areas of physics through both study and research and then to freely pursue their strongest interests. It can also be a highly frustrating experience, though, since as a student, one is automatically behind everyone else in the field, and it takes time to catch up. It also takes a while for people to sort of develop the right temperament, the right balance between what you want to understand and what you can concretely access at a given time. And also the balance between learning and creative activity, creative research. I think some amount of frustration is natural, and in fact indicates high standards.

Right now at universities all over America, graduate teaching assistants are trying to form labor unions. Do you agree with university deans that student assistants who teach are trainees on financial aid, or do you think they should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights of their own?
Play sound I don't actually know too much about this issue, but my gut reaction is that TA's are in fact employees and should have such collective bargaining rights.

By appearing on this web site, you are now a role model for girls all over the world who are interested in physics. Do you have any advice for a teen out there who might be dreaming of becoming a theoretical physicist herself one day?
Play sound Of course, my advice is to go for it. Learn as much as you can about what interests you and start to think about what questions you'd most like to answer. I think though that generally, everyone on the web page, and everyone in the field, can serve as a role model for aspiring scientists. One of the great things about science is that it brings together people from all walks of life, interested in the same questions, who talk about it in much the same way.


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John Schwarz // Ed Witten // Eva Silverstein // Juan Maldacena // Jim Gates // Sir Michael Atiyah // Brian Greene


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