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Scientist with PA ties wins U.S. research grant

After Einstein: Professor with property stake

here searching for a “theory of everything”

Reprinted and edited from the Brooklyn Eagle by permission

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Mexico native Justin Vazquez-Poritz read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” as a teenager growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, it swept away his previous ideas about becoming an architectural engineer, video game programmer or musical director for film scores.

Instead, he began reading intensively in his high school library about the warping of space and time, and his excitement about physics grew into a career.

This fall, Mexican-born Vazquez-Poritz, 36, son of Dorothy Poritz and stepson of Paul Gauvin of Cape Cod and Puerto Aventuras, now a physics professor at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), was awarded a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $60,000 titled, “Constraining Gravity Dual Models of Strongly Coupled Plasmas,” to conduct research in string theory. In addition, Nobel laureate David Gross has named him a 2010-2012 scholar at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) in Santa Barbara, Calif.

String theory is based on the notion that every object in our universe is composed of microscopic vibrating filaments (strings) of energy. Scientists like Dr. Vazquez-Poritz hope that string theory will unlock one of the mysteries of the universe, that is, how gravity and quantum physics fit together.

“String theory remains the leading candidate for a ‘theory of everything,’” explains Vazquez-Poritz, “capable of describing everything from quarks to black holes.” He is using string theory to understand the properties of a new form of matter, the quark-gluon plasma, currently being produced by such particle colliders as the one at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The plasma, at least a thousand times hotter than the core of our sun, is essentially a microscopic version of the early universe.

“A better understanding of this plasma will provide us with a clearer window into the beginning of the universe itself,” says Dr. Vazquez-Poritz. “There is a deep but not yet well-understood mathematical connection between the quark-gluon plasma and black holes.”

He explains how he became fascinated with string theory: “Writing down arcane equations in order to understand the universe at the deepest level seemed rather magical to me.”

At Cornell University, an undergraduate course with string theory proponent Brian Greene inspired him further. “I enrolled in his class, and the more we talked about bizarre concepts like higher dimensions, the more enticing it got!” He went on to earn his doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote his dissertation on string theory.

To win the prestigious NSF and KITP awards, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz, whose work has taken him to Belgium, Italy and China, competed with applicants from some of the country’s best universities and research centers. “It was especially gratifying to win,” he says, “because the NSF had a particularly limited budget in 2010 and awarded fewer grants.”

At City Tech, which he joined in 2008, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz teaches nine different physics courses. In one, he uses an online teaching tool, which enables his students to simulate landing a lunar module without crashing. He also teaches “Quantum Theory of Fields” at the City University of New York Graduate Center and has created a new course on string theory that he will teach there in spring 2011.

Author or co-author of 47 papers on various aspects of theoretical physics including gravitation, string theory, quark physics, cosmology, astrophysics and differential geometry, Dr. Vazquez-Poritz currently is publishing papers with Dr. Roman Kezerashvili (City Tech Physics department chair) on formulating ways in which solar sails could be used to test certain predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

City Tech’s Dean of Arts and Sciences Pamela Brown had this to say about Dr. Vazquez-Poritz’s achievements: “Albert Einstein searched 30 years for a unified field theory — one underlying principle linking all forces. Theoretical physicists may one day soon solve this problem using string theory. Professor Vazquez-Poritz has already discovered how to combine excellence in research, teaching and a commitment to our students. He exemplifies the best City Tech faculty members have to offer.”

Dr. Vazquez-Poritz has collaborated with scientists from, among other institutions, Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania and Central University in China. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati and Texas A&M University.

He also is an active mentor of undergraduate researchers in the college’s LSAMP (Louis Stokes New York City Alliance for Minority Participation) and Emerging Scholars programs.

“I enjoy it when my students show scientific curiosity,” he says. “When I draw connections between the course material, black holes and the expansion of the universe, they suddenly sit straight up and start asking question after question. This is when I know I have them hooked, which is quite satisfying, because after all, I’m hooked as well!”

The largest public college of technology in New York State, New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York enrolls more than 15,400 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs. An additional 15,000 students annually enroll in continuing education and workforce development programs. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, City Tech is at the MetroTech Center academic and commercial complex, convenient to public transportation.

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Holiday events at Colegio welcome all

A REMINDER that the Christmas Bazaar at the Colegio will be held Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week – Dec. 8-10 – followed by the annual Garage Sale on Saturday  from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. And

speaking of the colegio, where students can begin to achieve their dreams like the one in the story above, the recent Noches Mexicanas night drew this post-report from administrator Gabi Kozelj: “Thank you so much for promoting our community event.  It is important to understand that the primary reason the school organizes community events is to offer something that brings the community together and also lets people
know that our school exists.  Approximately 175 people attended.  The school itself, after paying expenses, made a total of $150 dollars.  Our high school students raised approximately $350 US to be applied to their field trip to Campeche planned for this upcoming March.  The Preschool  Prefirst class and and Elementary Sixth Grade class also raised some funds for their graduation.  We look forward to our next events which include our Xmas Bazaar which will be held December 8th through the 11th and ourXmas Festival which will be held December 10thbeginning at 5:30 pm with our production of Charles Dickens’ “ A Christmas Carol” with a Mexican twist followed by a Xmas gathering with food booths, game booths and a lot of Xmas cheer.  Expected attendance is 400 people.  Admission is free to all!

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