Panel discussion on Fundamental Physics and Society

The theme of the panel discussion is how society can benefit from the quest of the fundamental laws of the Universe, and how we can build public trust and enthusiasm for such basic science research. We will also discuss the sociological and ethical issues that affect how physicists engage in research and also communicate science to public.

Theoretical physics research especially into the nature of gravity, the fundamental interactions and the origins of the Universe is a very special field. It can be perceived as too speculative, and/or abstract and mathematical. However, it holds many promises -- from a deeper understanding of the framework called quantum field theory describing all elementary particles and quantum matter, to shedding new light on various other areas of physics and mathematics including quantum information that can play a profound role in developing novel technology. There are some important questions that society and institutions supporting such research would like to know. The questions listed below will be the topic of the panel discussion. Our panelists will also discuss other topics of relevance.

  1. Should this community of researchers self-organize to keep both abstract and mathematically rigorous modes of investigation, and also the speculative but direct connections to applications and interdisciplinary questions thriving? Should we just leave it to the "market" or try a form of self-regulation? Shall such a balance between pursuing mathematical rigor, studying simple toy models and engaging in interdisciplinary research benefit the field?

  2. To what extent shall we push for connections with experiments? Is it risky? Should we rather engage when we have enough understanding or take risks anyway? If yes, what are the potential terrestrial and extraterrestrial experiments which could be promising? In reverse, can there be a time when we can actually learn something about quantum gravity from table-top experiments or collider experiments utilizing holographic duality?

  3. How do we effectively convey the progress in our field to the general public without diluting complexities and also presenting diverse viewpoints? How much of an active role shall we researchers in the field play in public communication? Also how shall we convey our "failure" to connect to experiments and defend ourselves against criticism?

  4. Is it more important to convey the scientific results to the public or more how the science is actually done? In the latter case, is it also important to engage with philosophical issues about what constitutes science or convey the message in another way?

  5. How do we convince the general public and funding agencies that such research should be supported and also that it is useful? Especially why should a developing country with limited resources support such endeavors which can have any practical benefit only in the course of half a century or more? Are there other indirect benefits of supporting such research?

  6. Why should a technical institution like IIT Madras support and encourage such research? Should there be a separate center for such theoretical research? What benefits can such institutions accrue by supporting fundamental research?


IITM, Chennai


OCT. 24, 9:30 am - 12:30 pm IST (UTC + 5:30)


David Gross:

Chancellor's Chair Professor

Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (UCSB) and Nobel Laureate in Physics (2004)

David Gross is the Chancellor’s Chair Professor of Theoretical Physics and former Director at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a very influential and central figure in particle physics and string theory. He is known for his discovery of asymptotic freedom, a phenomenon where the strong nuclear force weakens at short distances, which has revolutionized our understanding of quantum field theories and has also established quantum chromodynamics as the fundamental theory of the strong nuclear force. Prof. Gross along with Frank Wilczek and David Politzer were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of asymptotic freedom. With collaborators, he also originated the “Heterotic String Theory” as a prime candidate for a unified theory of all the forces of nature. His other awards include the Sakurai Prize, MacArthur Prize, Dirac Medal, Oscar Klein Medal, Harvey Prize, the EPS Particle Physics Prize, the Grande Médaille d’Or,, and the Medal of Honor of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, Dubna. He holds honorary degrees from the US, Britain, France, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Belgium, China, the Philippines and Cambodia. His membership includes the US National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Indian Academy of Science, the Chinese Academy of Science, the Russian Academy of Sciences and TWAS. In 2016, he began a four-year term in the Presidential Line of the American Physical Society, where he is currently Past President.


Cumrun Vafa

Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Harvard University

Cumrun Vafa is the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard University. He is world-renowned for his groundbreaking work in string theory and the mathematical technology needed to explore this field. He is one of the founders of the duality revolution in string theory which has reshaped our understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe and together with Andrew Strominger he demonstrated that string theory can consistently account for the entropy of black holes. His ideas related to apparently consistent, but ultimately inconsistent, theories of quantum gravity through which he initiated the `swampland’ project have helped narrow down the vast string landscape, and is currently an active area of research with impact on cosmology as well as on particle phenomenology. Professor Vafa has received numerous prizes and recognitions for his work on theoretical physics including the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the 2008 Dirac Medal of ICTP and prizes for his work on mathematical physics from American Mathematical Society, as well as American Physical Society. He is a member of National Academy of Sciences as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mani Bhaumik is an eminent scientist who has played a key role in the development of laser technology that paved the way for Lasik eye surgery. In 1958, he became the first student to receive a PhD degree from IIT Kharagpur (and also from any IIT). In 1961, Bhaumik joined Xerox Electro-Optical Systems as a laser scientist. He later served as director of the laser technology laboratory at Northrop's corporate research laboratory. In 1973, he announced the conclusive demonstration of the world's first efficient excimer laser, a form of ultraviolet laser now extensively used fo photolithography, a critical technology necessary for manufacturing ultrahigh density microelectronic chips essential for devices like the ubiquitous cell phones.The excimer laser has also facilitated very precise cold cutting of biological tissues by photo ablation commonly used in the highly popular Lasik and similar other surgeries. He has received many awards and recognitions for his contributions including the Padma Shri in 2011 and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in 2010. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He holds a dozen US patents on laser technology. Currently, he is one of the active supporters of fundamental physics research that includes the notable Mani L. Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCLA.

Mani Bhaumik

Inventor of the world's first efficient excimer laser, Fellow of APS and IEEE and active supporter of fundamental science research

Rajesh Gopakumar

Senior Professor and Center Director, ICTS-TIFR, Bengaluru

Rajesh Gopakumar is the director of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR), Bangalore. He is widely known for his work on topological string theory (a simplified version of string theory) and his seminal contributions to the understanding of the gauge-gravity duality. His work with Cumrun Vafa led to the discovery of the Gopakumar–Vafa duality and Gopakumar–Vafa invariants which had profound impact also on mathematics. He has received numerous awards for his pioneering work including the ICTP prize in 2006, the TWAS prize for physical sciences in 2013, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences in 2009 and the G.D Birla Science Award in 2013. He is a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Science Academy.

Sandip Trivedi is the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai. He is well known for his contributions to string theory and is credited with finding the first models of accelerated expansion of the universe in low energy supersymmetric string theory along with other fellow researchers. He is also well known for his pioneering contribution in the proposal of a cosmology with a small positive cosmological constant, within the framework of a consistent theory of quantum gravity. His works have won him several awards and recognitions including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences in 2005, the Infosys Prize in Physical Sciences in 2010 and the TWAS prize for Physics in 2016. He is a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Sandip Trivedi

Senior Professor and Director, TIFR

Shiraz Minwalla

Professor of Theoretical Physics, TIFR

Shiraz Minwalla is a faculty member at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai. Prior to this he was a Harvard Junior Fellow and subsequently an Assistant Professor at Harvard University. He has done path-breaking works on string theory and quantum field theory, including playing a pioneering role in uncovering the fluid/gravity correspondence that maps the equations of fluids to Einstein's equations of general relativity. His work has won him many awards including the ICTP Prize in 2010, the 2014 New Horizons in Physics prize, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences in 2011, the Infosys Prize in Physics Sciences in 2013 and the TWAS prize for Physics in 2016. He is a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Spenta R. Wadia is the Infosys Homi Bhabha Chair Professor at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR) and Emeritus Professor at TIFR. He is the Founding Directorof ICTS-TIFR, a unique institution involved in furthering the boundaries of fundamental research and science education emphasizing that science is one story. He has made basic contributions to quantum field theory, statistical mechanics, string theory and black holephysics. In particular to the quantization of Yang-Mills theory, the discovery of the third order phase transition in gauge theories at large N, and to the precise derivation of Hawking radiation in string theory based on the microstates model of Strominger and Vafa. His other interests are in complex systems and cross-disciplinary biology. His recognitions include the 2004 TWAS Physics Prize and the ICTP Prize in 1995. He is a member of all the Science Academies of India and of TWAS.

Spenta Wadia

Chair Professor, ICTS-TIFR

Sunil Mukhi

Dean of faculty and senior Professor, IISER Pune

Sunil Mukhi is currently the dean of faculty at IISER Pune and has been instrumental in the shaping of IISER Pune as one of the leading research institutions in India today. He has made seminal contributions to string theory especially in the understanding of its many solitionic objects. He has won many awards and recognitions for his work including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences in 1999 and the JC Bose Fellowship in 2008. He is a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences and the World Academy of Sciences. Currently he is also the Chair of the Panel on Scientific Values of the Indian Academy of Sciences.


Arul Lakshminarayan

Senior Professor, IIT Madras

Arul Lakshminarayan is a senior Professor at the Department of Physics, IIT Madras. He has made many significant contributions in the fields of quantum information and computation. He has shown that quantum chaos engenders large entanglement between bipartions of a pure state but it destroys entanglement among sufficiently small subsystems. He has also contributed to the understanding of multipartite entanglement in quantum dynamical systems and many-body-localization. Furthermore, he is interested in the study of quantum algorithms and random matrices. He is also one of the most popular teachers in the Department.