From Baagh-e Vafa to Harvard
Prof. Cumrun Vafa; an Intimate Profile
Legend has it that an apple fall on Newton’s head inspired him to formulate the laws of gravity. Regardless of the truth behind it, this is more a story of being curious than a story of being lucky. As Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence.” After all, such a moment has probably happened to everybody as it happened to Cumrun Vafa, Hollis Professor of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy at Harvard University. “When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was wondering why the moon doesn’t fall on the ground,” he remembers.
No one answered the question for him, but he says that was not important. “What bothered me was not that I couldn’t get a good answer but that it didn’t bother anyone else.” Perhaps, because of his appreciation for wonderer spirits, Vafa decided to donate the monetary award of Mustafa Prize to help those who do bother by such questions. He asked the Mustafa Science and Technology Foundation (MSTF) to direct the entire financial reward of his prize to form the seed fund to create an International Research Institute for Fundamental Physics located in Iran.
He, of course, is one of the few who kept his sense of curiosity and wonder alive all through his life. He never stopped asking hard questions about the nature of the universe and remained curious as he was in childhood. “Where do we come from? What are the fundamental laws of nature? What is everything made of? Can we have a simple description of everything? These are the kind of questions which drew me to science,” he says.
Now, in the fourth decade of his career, Vafa is wrestling with the most challenging questions about the foundations of reality, questions about the nature of gravity and matter at the most fundamental level. Somehow, as a leading string theorist, he is still pursuing his childhood questions about moon with an approach that also has roots in his childhood and early education.
Vafa vividly remembers when his teacher, Mrs. Sadighi, taught them the concepts of height, width, and depth for the first time in the third grade in primary school. “I remember asking myself why do we have exactly three of these things? Why not more or less than three? In other words, in my primitive way, I was wondering why the space is three-dimensional.” It seems just three dimensions were never enough for Vafa, neither in childhood nor now. Many years later, he just happened to be the founder of F-theory, a branch of string theory with 12 dimensions.
The most critical feature of the F-theory is its geometrical language that turned it into a very powerful framework. F-theory helped researchers to describe everything very geometrically. It seems the geometry is Vafa’s personal niche, a hometown that he knows all its backdoors and shortcuts. Beginning in high school, he got really excited about studying geometry. The idea that simple logical deduction from Euclidean axioms can shed light on the properties of circles and triangles was satisfying for him. “That one could draw an auxiliary line to solve an otherwise difficult geometry problem was like a fun game to play. I had a lot of pleasant hours with my friends in high school where we spent on proving geometry statements,” he says. However, as a high school student, he never thought of his future as a scientist. “At the time, trying to become a scientist was not viewed as a very ambitious career objective! It was only later, in university, where my love for science led me to decide to focus on mathematics and physics and finally in graduate work mainly on physics,” he says.
Vafa’s enthusiasm for science came about in the early years of his high school education when he saw one of his cousins doing his physics in the last year of high school. “He was doing calculations on a piece of paper, and I asked him what he was trying to accomplish. He explained to me that by the calculation, he is trying to find out if you throw a ball in the air at a given angle with a given speed where it will hit the ground,” he remembers. He was shocked that it was possible to use mathematics to answer such a question. That one can predict what will happen to things moving around us by logical reasoning. “This connection between pure thought, in the form of mathematics, and its application in explaining reality was what made a long-lasting impression in my mind,” he says.
Vafa attended the prestigious Alborz High School in Tehran. It was the part of his life that his associates had a significant role in the path he finally chose for his career. “Alborz high school classmates, Principal, Dr. Mojtahedi, and other teachers had an important influence on me as I grew up while learning new subjects,” he says.
Vafa is world-renowned for his groundbreaking works in string theory and the mathematical technology needed to explore this field. He is one of the founders of the duality revolution in string theory, which has reshaped our understanding of the universe’s fundamental laws.
However, reaching such a position needs more than just curiosity and passion. Vafa always has been a hardworking person. Later in high school, he started to study his own aspects of Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism. Then he studied Einstein’s theory of special relativity which he found beyond belief at the time. “Phenomena predicted by Einstein’s theory, such as contraction of lengths or dilation of time, were, on the one hand, mind-boggling and on the other quite magical,” he says. In fact, many of the ideas of special relativity could be illustrated using Euclidean geometry. Those fascinating thoughts played very nicely with his enthusiasm for geometry.
In 1977 Vafa went to the USA as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he got his bachelor’s degree in math and physics as a double major. For graduate work, he went to Princeton, where he earned his Ph.D. in Physics in 1985. He then became a junior fellow at Harvard, where he has been a professor of physics for more than three decades. In 2018, he was officially appointed the Hollis Professor of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy in the Physics Department at Harvard University. This endowed professorship, established in 1712, is the second oldest chair at Harvard and the oldest chair in science in all of the United States. Vafa is the 15th incumbent of the chair through its history of more than 300 years.
Vafa enjoys art, music, poetry, culture, and philosophy when he is not doing physics. “Listening to music and especially Persian music is very relaxing and inspiring for me,” he says. His daily swim is also a source of balance for him as an occasion to float freely as if in outer space and think freely about everything or maybe a “theory of everything.” However, he says, above all, he enjoys spending time with his family and friends. He believes humanity, kindness, and bonds with his family and friends are those aspects of life he cherishes most. “I was fortunate to be living in a family compound in Shemiran, surrounded by relatives, nature, tall trees, and a peaceful environment. I remember the interesting stories my grandmother would share with us while running around in our compound – Baagh-e Vafa. The beautiful sight of the Alborz Mountain is imprinted in my mind from my viewing of it when I was a child, and thinking of it still brings back good memories,” he says. “I have been very fortunate to have had a very happy childhood. Raised by kind and caring parents, with two protective and fun brothers, one older and one younger.”
Vafa believes many people, from his parents to and friends to his teachers and professors played key roles in his life and career. “But perhaps, if I were to single out one person, it would be my wife, Afarin Sadr, who has had the most impact on who I am today. And of course, our children - Farzan, Keyon, and Neekon - who have been an inspiration for me.”