Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's in a Theory?

Dictionary definitions of "theory" are rife with words like "abstract," "hypothetical" and "speculation." But the theoretical realm is on a growth curve in the no-nonsense world of science, so much so that Duke's Provost's office is funding a program to expand its interdisciplinary boundaries.

The real impetus is a marriage of high end computers and powerful equations, says Berndt Mueller, the J. B. Duke Professor of Physics who coordinated efforts to begin the university's new Center for Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences (CTMS). All that horsepower can help scientists fathom what to look for in experimental data.

While theoretical methods have flourished in physics for hundreds of years (think of Newton and Einstein), they spread to chemistry over the last 40 and are now entering the realm of biology. "Theoretical mathematical tools are invading new areas simply because computation has become so powerful that you can address problems and systems that were totally out of reach until recently," Mueller says. "Another reason is that the quality and quantity of data in many fields is growing rapidly."

"What the center wants to do is provide a central marketplace, an environment in which working scientists can gather together and share theoretical tools without having to change their professional fields."

The CTMS has already signed on more than 50 faculty members from all over science and engineering. It has started a series of public lectures called "Adventures in Theory." And it is now beginning a graduate fellowship program.

Mueller's own group uses advanced math and powerful computer clusters to theorize conditions millionths of a second after the Big Bang. The expected outcome was a gas of two abnormally separated fundamental particles -- quarks and gluons. But Brookhaven National Laboratory experimentalists summonsed-up not a gas but the most free-flowing imaginable liquid when they re-created that environment by colliding gold atoms at extremely high energies.

Mueller's graduate student Bryon Neufeld recently used sophisticated mathematics to compute the outcome if particles moving near light speed passed through such a "perfect" fluid. He found such interactions should form shock waves akin to breaking the sound barrier.

Big Bang indeed! Who says theory can't be fun?

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