Physics Prof Has Big Interest in Tiny Particles

Subatomic physics has real-world applications

Prof. Alexandros Gezerlis

Prof. Alexandros Gezerlis holds an Albert Einstein figure.

Imagine having Albert Einstein as an office mate. Alexandros Gezerlis does.

Or, at least, it’s a collectible Einstein figure, complete with that crazy white mane and a tailored grey suit, perched on a shelf in the physics professor’s new office in the MacNaughton Building.

Call it a father figure of sorts. “My work is not directly related to Einstein, but to some degree all of physics is connected to Einstein,” says Gezerlis.

He arrived at Guelph last summer to study subatomic physics, especially components and forces of atomic nuclei. He’s interested in quantum many-body theory, which seeks to understand how groupings of particles interact with each other.

Gezerlis looks at particles in the atomic nucleus, notably neutrons and protons. He’s also interested in ultra-cold atoms, which take on important properties near absolute zero. His studies also take him all the way to neutron stars, formed after the collapse of a massive star and containing mostly neutrons.

Much of that work is intended to widen our understanding of the fundamentals of matter. But he says learning the basics may one day provide insights into workaday applications in technology, health care or nuclear power generation.

“This is basic research, but the more we learn about the nucleus, the more we can try to devise ways of using that knowledge,” he says.

Rather than observe these tiny particles directly, he performs simulations on supercomputers. At Guelph he will tap into SHARCNET, a group of Ontario academic institutions using high-performance computing for various research problems.

As a theorist, he looks to help hone explanations of what physicists see when they glimpse interactions and forces involving these microscopic systems.

Think of those theories and their refinements as ever-sharper lenses on a microscope, he says. Not only do we get a closer look at matter, but we might also find unexpected behaviour and properties at this level. “We are learning more about nature,” says Gezerlis. “Knowing more is one of the goals of not only science but also humanity.”

Star-gazing as a youngster in the hills around Athens, Greece, made him ponder questions about cosmology. “It started in the stars.”

Not that his parents were all that keen on seeing their son pursue a field as seemingly esoteric as physics. “There’s a long history of Greek youngsters wanting to do science and a long tradition of families saying: ‘Are you sure?’”

He studied electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. Then came graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; most Greek professors he knew had studied at some point in the United States.

In Illinois, he worked with respected nuclear theorist Vijay Pandharipande, who helped develop the many-body problem describing interactions between nuclear constituents. “Your degrees are less important than who you worked with.” Referring to his adviser, he says, “Personally and academically, he had a very large impact.”

During that time, Pandharipande died in his mid-60s after a bout with lung cancer. “On his deathbed he was reading and commenting on student manuscripts,” says Gezerlis, recalling his supervisor’s motivational skills and commitment.

For his PhD, Gezerlis studied ultra-cold atoms and neutron matter with Joe Carlson at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

He became a research associate at the University of Seattle, Washington, and then a post-doc and Herzberg Fellow at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany.

Gezerlis didn’t know U of G then. But he did know about TRIUMF, the national subatomic physics lab in Vancouver. Experimental research projects there are led by Guelph physics professors Carl Svensson and Paul Garrett.

Take all three faculty members here and their respective research teams, and Gezerlis says, “We have the largest low-energy nuclear group at a university in Canada.”

That group of some two dozen full-time researchers and students includes his wife, Liliana Caballero, also a nuclear theorist. Originally from Colombia, she completed her PhD at Indiana University, where they met.

Caballero now holds a post-doc divided among Guelph, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., and Michigan State University.