Curto mixes math, physics in string theory

by Margaret Harris

Editor's Note: This is another in an occasional series of articles about Duke graduate students.

By age 12, Carina Curto knew she wanted to be a physicist. The daughter of a mathematician and a computer scientist, Curto would read Scientific American and Discover magazine cover to cover.

As a high school junior growing up in Iowa City, she took introductory physics courses at her parents' university, where her professor would give her books on general relativity to study over the summer. With that kind of background, it was only natural that she would go on to earn a bachelor's degree in physics at Harvard.

Somewhere between introductory physics and quantum mechanics, however, Curto's interests took on a slightly different twist.

"My sophomore year ... I became interested in math for math's sake," said Curto, now a first-year graduate student in Duke's department of mathematics. "Initially I'd started taking more math just because I felt it would help my physics, but then I started really liking it. I liked the presentation of the material it's more elegant, in a way, than physics is."

Her words echo the title of The Elegant Universe, physicist Brian Greene's popular book on the branch of mathematical physics known as string theory. String theory attempts to place several different areas of physics under a single, unifying theoretical umbrella. String theorists must therefore be mathematicians as well as physicists, even more so than their counterparts in other fields.

The idea of combining mathematics and physics sits well with Curto, who came to Duke in part because of the strong cadre of string theorists in the math and physics departments.

"I wanted to do theoretical physics, but with a very heavy math slant to it, and string theory seems to be the largest, most exciting field in that sense," she said.

In addition to receiving scholarship funds from the National Science Foundation, the Duke Endowment and the J.B. Duke Fellowship program, Curto is also a member of the University Scholars' program, founded two years ago with the goal of promoting interdisciplinary studies at Duke.

"In a sense, what I'm doing here is fairly interdisciplinary," said Curto, who is currently taking two courses in physics and one in math. "I really like seeing mathematics interpreted in a physical way. There are things I learn that in a math course you would learn as some sort of mathematical construct very abstract things that you learn to deal with and prove things about and to see that applied in a physical context is really, really interesting."

Keeping up with both math and physics is difficult, Curto acknowledges, and she sometimes worries she is not really going to be a physicist or a mathematician, but something in between. She is not teaching any courses right now, but wouldn't mind doing so after her National Science Foundation grant runs out in two years. At Harvard, she was a teaching assistant for several introductory math courses, and she jokes she "liked being covered with chalk" at the end of every section she gave.

"Growing up around a mathematician gave me a better notion of what it means to be an academic, or especially a mathematician. So I feel like I have a fairly good sense of what I'm getting into," she said.

Her greatest challenge right now, though, is not getting discouraged.

"String theory is hard and it's frustrating in a way, because it requires so much background. In order to read an introductory string theory book, you need a really solid base in quantum field theory. I've had a year of quantum field theory, but it's one of those things that you need to take a lot of courses in or at least sit in on!" Curto said with a laugh.

Curto said she sometimes gets discouraged after, for example, spending four hours reading a single chapter, but keeps going simply because she likes it. "In a way, I feel like I haven't made any progress, but at some point I've realized that, 'Wow, there is a lot of stuff I didn't know before.' You just have to learn to deal with the fact that you go to string seminar every week, and you don't understand (anything), but that's OK because little by little you understand a little more."