Why is gravity so weak? What is the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? Are there any other forces beyond the four known interactions? These are only a few of the questions particle theory tries to address. Long before the historic announcement last February that physicists had detected gravitational waves from space — a major scientific achievement that made headlines around the world — a young Greek woman named Asimina Arvanitaki had already arrived at a way of doing the very same thing, with a far smaller and cheaper experiment involving a microscopic disk suspended by powerful lasers.
Arvanitaki graduated from Athens University and received her PhD from Stanford University, where she conducted research at the Institute for Theoretical Physics along with another Greek physicist, Savvas Dimopoulos. The daughter of two teachers, Arvanitaki grew up in a small village in southern Greece with a thirst for knowledge. She recalls that at a young age, she correctly calculated the time it takes light to travel from Earth to the sun – about eight minutes – and was stunned to realize that “we cannot know the ‘now’ of the sun.”
Asimina Arvanitaki wants to explain the universe by proposing novel theoretical ideas to such longstanding problems, combining ingenuity with new technologies to develop experimental tests that can probe otherwise-inaccessible phenomena. Her goal will be a lot easier as of today, as a recipient of an $8 million research chair at the Perimeter Institute at Waterloo, Ontario. Arvanitaki was named the inaugural Stavros Niarchos Foundation Aristarchus Chair in Theoretical Physics and she’ll spend her five-year term, jointly funded by the Perimeter Institute and the Greek-based Stavros Niarchos Foundation, furthering her own cutting-edge work and contributing to education and training for young people in Greece. Arvanitaki is the first female research chair at the Perimeter Institute and, after today, one of the best-funded academics in Canada.
“My research is broad and interdisciplinary, and in some ways it’s outside traditional views on beyond the Standard Model physics. I do sometimes feel like the odd one out,” Arvanitaki says. “But at Perimeter, diversity and new ideas in theory are what it’s all about. I am extremely excited and honoured to become part of such a team!” Neil Turok, Director at the Institute, says Asimina is an excellent and unusual physicist as her ideas bridge the theoretical aspect of physics by experimenting with new and creative ways. Indeed, her research focuses on a ‘new’ type of theoretical physics called ‘precision frontier’ because it involves making exacting measurements of well-understood phenomena and looking for unexpected deviations from what theory predicts.
The enticing possibility of playing a role in the hunt for gravitational waves predicted by Einstein, or the dark matter that still puzzles modern-day physicists, reminds Arvanitaki of her motivations for becoming a physicist in the first place.“I just want to know why things are the way they are,” she says. “It’s the ‘why’ that drove me to physics, and still drives me.” And for Arvanitaki, when traditional means of discovering something fails, it is time to adopt novel ways. “This is the story of experimenting. You just have to look. Even if you don’t find anything, that doesn’t mean you stop. If you don’t look, you don’t know.”