Star-Studded Journey Began Outside a Professor’s Door

A Hunter professor opened the door to an astrophysics career for Arlie Petters.
Arlie Petters was asleep on the tile floor outside biologist James Wyche's Hunter College office at 8:15 one Saturday morning in 1982.

"I tried very carefully to open the door and step over, and he just sprang up and startled me," Wyche recalls. "Very groggily, he asked, ‘Are you doctor Wyche?' And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I am.' He said, ‘I'd like to enroll in your program'" - the Minority Access to Research Careers program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which Wyche co-administered. Petters had learned about Wyche on the then-primitive Internet. Catching an accent, Wyche asked where he came from.

"Belize," Petters told him."I don't have a place to live due to some family problems. My girlfriend's parents allowed me to stay by them for now and I was wondering if you could help me out."

Petters, whose dream was to become a scientist, was considering leaving New York for Belize, where he would have likely ended up working on his grandfather's small citrus farm. He was looking for an opportunity to pursue his dream. He recalled telling Wyche that he wanted to study mathematics and astrophysics in Hunter's accelerated B.A./M.A. program. "I told him I had very good grades and wouldn't let him down."

Wyche, this year named provost and chief academic officer of Howard University, arranged for the fellowship, a stipend and lodging in the Brookdale nursing dorm, which Hunter had just acquired. "He seemed bright enough," Wyche says with humor.

That was Petters' gateway to a mathematical physics career that has led to an endowed chair at Duke University, with a triple appointment in the math and physics departments and, for quantitative finance, in the Fuqua School of Business. He arrived at Duke in 1998 after teaching mathematics at MIT and Princeton and became a full professor in 2003.

Hunter and CUNY Graduate Center professor Richard Churchill, who taught him analysis, called Petters "one of the most curious students I ever had. He was reading journal articles about Clifford algebras as an undergrad - even grad students don't start doing that until their second or third year - and he didn't let anything stop him."

Colleague Daniel Chess worked with him on three independent studies in differential geometry after Petters exhausted regular mathematical coursework. "I taught him how to construct a mathematical structure, he absorbed that information and could work in [algebraic] K theory and other advanced mathematical concepts," says Chess. "He was very strong."

When Petters became interested in relativity, physics professor Edward Tryon tutored him one summer. Physicist Steven Greenbaum and Robert A. Marino, now president of the American University of Rome, were mentors. Petters also studied with City College mathematics and physics professors, including Isaac Chavel and Michio Kaku, who led him through supergravity, which postulated 11 dimensions and evolved into string theory.

"The professors at Hunter provided a nurturing environment that stretched across the intellectual boundaries of mathematics and physics, which wasn't common then," says Petters. "That was the seed of the interdisciplinary bug I never shook off." Today, he notes, students "are born thinking that things are interdisciplinary by nature."

He graduated from Hunter in 1986 and earned a doctorate in mathematical physics from MIT in 1991. He initially gained attention with his doctoral thesis, which proposed the first mathematical theory for gravitational lensing, in which gravity from massive objects warps space-time.

Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity predicted how gravity would bend light far more accurately than Newtonian physics had allowed. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein's theory during a 1919 solar eclipse, when stars appeared out of position due to gravitational lensing.

In 1979, astronomers detected the first lensing outside the solar system, as Einstein had also predicted, and in 1986 astrophysicists showed that if two stars are lensed, you will see three or five images. The question Petters answered in his dissertation was: If you have any finite number of stars, how many images would you see?

During a train ride from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to MIT, Petters recast the counting problem in terms of topology, the study of geometric figures whose properties remain unchanged even when distorted.

"I was able to show that you could construct a certain surface where the number of peaks and valleys and things called saddles in that terrain allowed you to calculate all of the variants. I made the bridge between abstract math and this topological problem that came out of Einstein's work. If you're not in an interdisciplinary world, you'd never think of that."

Although Petters' research remains in astrophysics and mathematical physics, he has devoted himself to improving educational opportunities for youngsters in Belize. Not only did he involve Duke MBA students in promoting social entrepreneurship in science and technology there, but also he established the Petters Research Institute in his hometown of Dangriga. It trains young people in mathematics, science and technology and helps develop green technologies to boost the country's economy.

"I've been fascinated by the cosmos from my childhood in Belize," he says. "As a kid growing up in a rural environment, you experience nature a lot more than an urban child, and you see millions of stars at night. The vastness of physical reality raises questions. How did it get there? How do stars stay in place? When you are introduced to the basic elements of astrophysics and cosmology, the natural next step is to have a solid math background. So mathematics and physics have always been a part of the journey."

His work in his home country has brought him special recognition. In 2008, Queen Elizabeth II named Petters to membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his research and work with Belize students. And in Dangriga, there is a street named in his honor.