Who: Erik Verlinde (1962)
What: Professor of Theoretical Physics
Studied: Physics and Mathematics (at Utrecht University)
First job: Sales assistant in the camping goods department at V&D
Favourite place at the UvA: Building 904 at the Science Park. It’s a pleasant building with lots of space for students
Essential: Good colleagues, students and PhD students to talk to and work with
Erik Verlinde (1962) is a professor of Theoretical Physics. He grew up in a science-oriented family and has been fascinated by black holes, the universe and the Big Bang since a very early age. Erik decided to study Physics under the tutelage of Professor Gerard 't Hooft. He then went on to earn a PhD and is currently working with an international team to further expand on the gravitational research conducted by his childhood hero, Stephen Hawking.
There so many discoveries yet to be made. Is that what makes physics so special to you?
‘Absolutely. When I was little, I was interested in black holes, even though back then, we only had a vague notion that they might exist. I've always felt that there was something there we didn't fully understand yet and for which I wanted to find answers. That “something” had to do with black holes, but also with broader phenomena like the development of the universe and where it comes from, the Big Bang, you name it. I still think we don't truly understand every aspect of these things. Today, so many decades later, we do know for certain that they exist. We can see evidence of their collisions and have even managed to take a picture. That's quite remarkable. And such progress only makes our work that much more enjoyable. As theorists, we deal mostly with abstract ideas on paper, but when you can examine these things in concrete terms, it inevitably changes your opinion a bit. Our job as physicists is to try to understand nature. The questions we strive to answer come straight from nature itself, unlike with mathematics, a discipline in which you can formulate your own questions. That's what makes it such a challenging field of study.’
So just how important is physics?
‘In recent years, we've made a great deal of headway in the field of elementary particle and gravity-related research. I started my doctoral research during the period when string theory, which unites gravity with other particles, was being developed. That represented an enormous leap forward in the study of gravity. When I was a teenager, I saw a programme with Stephen Hawking in it. He is one of my heroes, because he was one of the first to establish a relationship between gravity, black holes and the quantum realm of the very smallest particles. We are now carrying on where his research left off. What I ultimately hope to achieve is to find a new approach to gravity. Right now, we're in the middle of working toward that goal, and that is an exciting and interesting place to be. The world of technology could not exist without the kind of research done by physicists. Among the topics touched on in my research is the use of quantum mechanics to build computers, the so-called quantum computers. The idea is that these computers will be able to perform calculations much more rapidly than standard computers. Google recently took an important step in that direction and, within a few days’ time, completed a calculation that would have taken a normal computer twenty years or more. This technological breakthrough was made possible by first thinking about how nature works. I'm pleased with where my field is at today; it's an interesting time. For now, there is plenty left for me to explore.’
Amsterdam is a major global player when it comes to research into string theory, gravity and black holes.
Name something that makes you feel proud.
‘First of all, I'm proud that the questions we are asking enable us to attract not only young researchers but many enthusiastic and talented students as well. We currently have fifty new Master's students, both Dutch and international, which is a lot for Theoretical Physics. The students in the Theoretical Physics programme are trained to find solutions to all kinds of issues. They learn to develop an incredible degree of problem-solving ability. At the moment, there is a lot happening in the area of Artificial Intelligence and robots. To be skilled in that field, you need solid training in how to solve all sorts of problems. I think that Physics, and Theoretical Physics in particular, is one of the best programmes available in that regard. Physics programmes turn out people who are good at dealing with rigid problems, but can also effectively apply systematic thinking: they know how to break a problem down into components and are able to conduct analysis to identify its essence. Such people are very valuable, and our programme produces a large number of them. And secondly: I'm proud that we theoretical physicists can answer questions that occupy the minds of the general public. Robbert Dijkgraaf, for instance, plays a crucial role in sharing the content of our research with the public. Our research touches on existential questions such as: where do we come from? When it comes to answering those questions, we are in the top tier of experts worldwide. While our research yields no immediate answers – and many times we ourselves are unable to predict the results – it is an investment in the distant future. For me, Physics is the quintessential science degree programme in which we train people who can make major contributions to society.’
You learn how to translate complex ideas into language that's easy to grasp.
Can you tell us something that really sums up the UvA?
‘If you ask me, the great thing about the UvA is how it's integrated into the city: it truly is the University of Amsterdam. The UvA’s roots go deep. The contact between students and lecturers is very pleasant; they're not afraid to drop by my office. And the students are also taught by people who are excited to talk about their new research. We are increasingly shifting focus to science communication, because it's important to share our research with a wide audience. I’ve noticed that many students really enjoy that. Many of them are interested in careers in science communication, and Theoretical Physics provides a good foundation for that. You learn how to translate complex ideas into language that's easy to grasp. That also makes it easier for prospective students to understand the kind of research being conducted here.’