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On 29 May, Petr Dunin-Barkovskiy (1988) will be awarded his doctorate at the UvA. During his doctoral research at the Korteweg Institute for Mathematics (KdvI) he conducted fundamental research on theoretical models of string theory.

What was your most significant conclusion?

‘We proved that there is an equivalence between topological recursion theory on the one hand, and Gromov-Witten theory on the other. This is striking, because on the surface these theories have nothing to do with each other. The Gromov-Witten theory is derived from string theory. String theory is a model of reality which explains the existence of so many different particles. According to the theory, all particles are made up of tiny vibrating elastic bands. String theory can only work in ten dimensions. Our own reality appears to have only four dimensions: three dimensions of space and one of time. String theory tells us that we can’t see the other six dimensions because they’re tiny and rolled up. The Gromov-Witten theory studies the structure of these dimensions.’ 

And what is the topological recursion theory?

‘Topological recursion theory is a technique derived from another part of physics. It appears that when you use it with the right initial data (what’s known as spectral curves) you can gain answers to all sorts of questions in mathematics and physics.’

What is the social relevance of your findings?

‘That’s hard to say right now. For now my results have no direct social impact, but in the future of course they could. It’s often been the case that scientific findings have an impact many years later, rather than at the time. In any case, my discovery that the theories resemble each other provides points of entry for understanding them even better.’

Did you come to the Netherlands for the PhD position or because you wanted to be in this country?

‘It was for the PhD position. I was living in Moscow and studying theoretical physics there. During my Master’s degree I was at a conference and spoke to Professor Sergey Shadrin, who would become my supervisor. We talked about all sorts of issues in theoretical physics and it was really interesting. He then emailed me and asked me to come and do a PhD here in Amsterdam. It was an easy decision to make. The group at the UvA is well known.’

What will you be doing next?

‘I’m going to be doing a postdoc on the exact same topic at the Max Planck Institute in Bonn. I love this subject area and definitely want to continue in it. But eventually I would like to return to Moscow. Ideally I would get a tenure track there and become a professor. I will miss Amsterdam though. What I find really special here is being able to cycle from one end of the city to the other. In Moscow that would be impossible.’