Hanging on a string theory

Beasley's studies win him a Churchill award to go to Cambridge

by Dennis Meredith

When he's not playing string bass guitar in a campus blues band, Christopher Beasley contemplates far different kinds of strings ­ infinitesimally tiny stringlike structures that physicists theorize might make up all matter in the universe.

Beasley, a double physics and mathematics major in arts and sciences, has been awarded a coveted Churchill Scholarship to study "string theory" next year at Cambridge University.

String theory in physics is a highly promising effort to link theories describing the smallest realm in the universe ­ the quantum theory of subatomic particles ­ with the general theory of relativity that operates at the largest scale, describing the nature of gravity and its relationship with space and time.

String theory posits that each subatomic particle making up all matter is a kind of vibrating geometric entity that mathematically resembles a string. These strings are infinitesimally tiny, each as small compared to a proton as a proton is small compared to the entire solar system. It's an exotic, complex world of mathematical theory, but one that Beasley deeply enjoys.

"Ever since high school, I've always been interested in mathematics and how it relates to the physical world; the way people use math and physics to describe actual things that happen," he said. Thus, at Duke, he found that among his favorite mathematics classes was differential geometry.

"Geometry seems to me to be a very physical sort of mathematics. You have these surfaces and you can see them," he said.

He next moved on to take a course in quantum mechanics, where his teacher, Assistant Professor of Physics Roxanne Springer, recognized his growing interest in string theory and steered him to string theorist Ronen Plesser, also an assistant professor of physics. Plesser is among the faculty recently recruited to launch an emphasis on research and teaching on string theory at Duke.

"I really leaped at the chance, and I got involved in taking some classes on the subject with Ronen and talking to him," recalled Beasley. "I've had a wonderful past couple of years learning about this stuff, which really is the interplay of mathematics and physics at what seems to me a quite deep level."

His enthusiasm and talent have already won him a raft of academic awards, including the Duke University Faculty Scholarship, the highest honor given by Duke faculty to undergraduates. He is also an Angier B. Duke Scholar and a member of both the Golden Key National Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa.

Such a distinguished academic career has already won him admission to graduate schools at the country's hottest universities for exploring string theory, including Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara. He plans to enter graduate school after his year at Cambridge.

Beasley looks forward to an academic career as a string theorist and is already striking out on his own, delving more deeply into string theory. And what do his proud parents think of their son's exotic pursuit?

"I went to a physics meeting and gave a talk on my senior project, and I was the only one there whose parents were in the audience with a video camera! They have already taken the tape home and played it for our extended family."

And, although he does plan intensive studies at Churchill College in Cambridge, he also plans to do his share of traveling about, exploring the British Isles and parts of Europe.

But string theory remains his most fascinating pursuit, whether sitting deep in thought at his desk, with a cup of hot tea, a yellow pad and the sound of Bach; or working on Saturday mornings at his volunteer job shelving books and doing odd jobs at the Durham Public Library.

He does interrupt his concentration, however, taking a break from his library tasks to re-read his favorite Dr. Seuss books.

"You should not discount Dr. Seuss," he laughs. "Dr. Seuss is an active pursuit in itself, I think."