Interview with young scientist, recipient of Moscow Government Prize

Interview with young scientist, recipient of Moscow Government Prize
In early March, the Moscow Government awarded prizes to young scientists. Mos.ru interviewed one recipient, Sergei Koldobsky, PhD in Physics and Mathematics. He described where to search for antimatter, the PAMELA anomalous effect, and discussed what will likely motivate future physicists.

Where does the anti-proton belt hide? What is the structure of interstellar space? What systems help process data from orbital spacecraft? It is unlikely that most people think much about these issues. But Sergei Koldobsky, 31, a graduate of the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI with a PhD in Physics and Mathematics and an expert on cosmic rays, sees these questions as topical. In 2009, he joined the PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics) satellite-based experiment primarily aiming to measure spectrum bands of high-energy anti-particles in cosmic radiation.

Question: Mr. Koldobsky, can you tell us about the project that landed you the Moscow Government Prize?

Sergei Koldobsky: We received the prize for the PAMELA experiment that studied cosmic rays. The main institutes for this international project are located in Italy and Russia. I would like to note up front that I didn’t work alone; I worked with Andrei Mayorov and Alexander Karelin. We tried to locate cosmic rays, that is, elementary particles and nuclei that reach the Earth from various astrophysical sources, including the Sun, distant stars and ancient supernova events... We can catch all these diverse particles orbiting the Earth.

Question: What for?

Sergei Koldobsky: There are two applications. First, we should take fundamental research into account. This work will help us learn how the stars and interstellar space function, and how these particles reach us. Second, our project has a practical application. There is radiation in outer space. And when we launch astronauts and cosmonauts to the Moon, Mars or the International Space Station, we need to assess background radiation levels and develop equipment that can withstand it.

Question: But we have been flying manned space missions for quite a while now. Haven’t experts identify radiation evaluation methods long before your research project?

Sergei Koldobsky: Yes, methods were developed. But our study provided new data to create more accurate models. We no longer have to be overly cautious in some cases, and we can accurately predict that there will be no high-energy particles in this sector of space, and so protective measures can be reduced slightly. This will help cut microcircuit production costs.

Question: Can you say a few more words about the usefulness of your work. The description notes that the data obtained will help study such concepts as antimatter and dark matter. How can this be accomplished?

Sergei Koldobsky: Among other things, our experiment helped discover the captured protons’ belt. In other words, we have learned that a small belt that captures anti-protons is located around the Earth. The so-called PAMELA anomalous effect may be the main result of our project. When we talk about space radiation particles, the energy spectrum is the most important unit that we should measure. Basically, this concept denotes the amount of multi-energy particles reaching us from various sources. The data we obtained for some particles differed completely from existing models. For example, the spectrum band of positrons, anti-particles that mostly originate in interstellar space, was expected to decrease. This means that the number of particles decreases in proportion to the amount of energy. In reality, the amount decreased to a certain level and then started increasing again. One possible explanation links this growth with the disintegration of dark matter.

The satellite relayed data for ten years, and this data arrives in the form of zeros and bits. So, we focus on programming and data analysis with regard to physics.

Question: What is dark matter? Everyone has heard of it, but few people know what it really is.

Sergei Koldobsky: All known objects, including you, me, this table, our planet, remote stars, galaxies and black holes consist of ordinary matter that we can measure. But the Universe’s energy balance shows that ordinary matter only adds up to about 4 percent. And we know nothing about the rest. The so-called dark matter, which has its own mass and exerts gravitational forces, accounts for nearly 22 percent. But this unknown substance does not manifest itself in any way. Scientists discovered evidence of dark matter’s existence in the mid-20th century when they started watching spiral galaxies. You have probably seen some beautiful images of these galaxies online: a spiral galaxy consists of a glowing nucleus, with swirling “arms” emanating from it. After observing them for a long time, scientists decided that, considering their impressive weight, they should be spinning very slowly. In reality, they span 10-15 times faster. This prompted the following conclusion: A certain massive substance that we cannot see forces these galaxies to spin much faster than the visible substances accumulating inside them.

Question: What equipment did you use for your research?

Sergei Koldobsky: Russia’s Resurs-DK1 satellite carries the main unit weighing about 500 kilogrammes. The experimental equipment consists of various monitoring and detection systems. Some allow us to measure the speed of particles, while others measure the weight, direction and other parameters.

The satellite relayed data for ten years. We received this data at the Earth Monitoring Centre in Moscow’s Otradnoye District and later processed it with equipment at the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI. This data arrives in the form of zeros and bits. So we focus on programming and data analysis with regard to physics. We processed tremendous amounts of data that reached about 45 terabytes in the end, that is, when parts of all the data had already been eliminated.

Question: Why did you apply for the prize?

Sergei Koldobsky: We’ve known about it for a few years. Earlier, we were not confident that our application would sound convincing. By 2016, we had all defended our PhD theses, and accomplished a lot during this experiment and published many articles. All of us are pretty young, and that’s why we decided to participate.

Question: Are there any rules as to how can you spend prize money?

Sergei Koldobsky: As far as I know, there are no such rules. This is a prize, not a grant being issued for a research project. We received it post factum as a reward for our good performance in physics.

Question: What areas of physics are, in your opinion, the most promising, including in a financial context?

Sergei Koldobsky: Any area is promising in its own way. To me, nuclear physics is among top-priority areas. It will continue to receive a lot of funding for a long time because the nuclear power industry owes its existence to this science. This so far promising source of energy is much more eco-friendly than, say, coal or natural gas. Global warming continues unabated, and it’s time we stopped heating up the planet. Nuclear energy does not heat up the atmosphere and remains very eco-friendly, provided that the appropriate safety standards are compiled with.

Thermonuclear energy is also promising. It’s difficult to generate this type of energy because you basically need to create a small “Sun.” The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France is the most well-known project in this discipline. Russia is also involved in this ambitious and very expensive project. It may be interesting, but they are trying to develop a thermonuclear reactor based on the Soviet-era TOKAMAK (Toroidal Chamber with Magnetic Coils) concept that was suggested by Soviet scientists.

New physics research projects, including continuing research in matter, antimatter and dark matter, also remain promising. This research could result in practical applications anytime now. Those who discovered electricity in the 19th century didn’t know that the entire human race would come to depend on it. And the fathers of nuclear energy also had no idea that it would be used in its current form. Those who invented semiconductors didn’t know they’d be omnipresent, and that they would be used in telephones, computers, TV sets, etc. All this was fundamental research that changed the world in just a few decades. These examples are very inspiring.

It is hard to achieve my simple dream: I would like to discover something new, important and interesting

Question: How did you become a physicist?

Sergei Koldobsky: My parents also graduated from MEPhI, and I believe this influenced my decision to some extent. But they never insisted that I choose some specific area of knowledge, let alone physics. I was also quite fascinated with our school teacher, Sergei Mikhailov who could talk about physics for hours on end, virtually making formulas and figures come alive.

In addition, I’ve always been a technically-minded person, and I like math, physics and chemistry more than, say, drawing.

Question: Did you ever want to work in some more profitable, but less interesting, area, such as oil and gas?

Sergei Koldobsky: I haven’t thought about that yet. Certainly, much depends on funding here. I’m quite lucky because MEPhI and our project pay off quite handsomely. On the other hand, I know many scientists who haven’t done as well and were forced to quit for more profitable sectors.

Question: Instead of changing jobs, some people prefer to go abroad. Some do this for financial reasons and others have to go because the state doesn’t support their current sector. Are you planning to do this?

Sergei Koldobsky: I don’t want to leave, but I find it interesting to take part in international projects and to meet with foreign colleagues. PAMELA is a case in point. I hope that the situation will not change in the future, and that the state will be able to support interesting projects.

To be honest, I don’t want science to be divided into Russian and foreign science. All knowledge should belong to everyone. And it would be great if all scientists worked together. But these are just dreams so far.

Question: Can you say a few words about your professional dream and your favourite scientists?

Sergei Koldobsky: It is hard to achieve my simple dream: I would like to discover something new, important and interesting. And I also admire Arkady Galper who heads our research team. He joined the academic community in the 1950s; he has a knack for physics, and he knows what to do and where to go. Mr Galper has accomplished a lot for modern cosmic-ray physics allowing this science to develop in Russia, and our scientists to make an impressive contribution to global research.

I like two other physicists who passed away not too long ago. First, I like Carl Sagan, the famous American astrophysicist and science populariser. I’m really impressed with his humanistic ideas as to how people should use knowledge and treat the Earth and each other. And I also like Soviet scientist Vitaly Ginzburg who was like a walking computer and who effectively grappled with physical concepts. And he was pretty good in various areas of physics.

Of course, I would be happy to receive the Nobel Prize someday. But this is not the most important thing to me. Maybe, I’m not very ambitious

Question: And what do you think of Stephen Hawking? He is probably the most famous physicist today.

Sergei Koldobsky: He is a great man, no doubt. Of course, his life has been so difficult. To me, it is his work that keeps him going, and his ideas also keep him alive.

Question: You said that you dream of discovering something. Would you like to become famous as a result of this discovery and receive a Nobel Prize?

Sergei Koldobsky: It may sound strange, but I don’t. Of course, I would be happy to receive a Nobel someday. But this is not the most important thing for me. Maybe, I’m not very ambitious.

Question: Many problems of physics remain unresolved. Aren’t you afraid that you might fail to discover something, that you might research some problem all your life and fail to achieve significant results?

Sergei Koldobsky: Of course, this is possible, and this does not apply to physics alone. But it doesn’t deter me or my colleagues. We have already made some discoveries, including the PAMELA anomalous effect and the anti-proton belt. At moments like this, you realise that anything is possible.

And you need to objectively evaluate your work when things don’t go right. In some cases, scientists keep “digging” in the same direction. Figuratively speaking, they have already reached the core of the Earth but have found nothing. Instead, you need to let your mind wander off to another planet, grasp the whole picture and try other options.

Question: What are your future plans?

Sergei Koldobsky: My colleagues and I are planning to work on this research project for a year or two and search for new effects. After that, we hope to take part in the GAMMA-400 project, an experiment to measure gamma-quantum particles and the energy they generate with extreme accuracy. Basically, gamma-quantum particles and light are the same thing. This research project is closely linked with black-hole research. It has already been established that a black hole exists in the centre of our galaxy, but it is still unclear how it functions. This is really interesting. It’s possible that a black hole has unusual sources of energy that might eventually be tapped by humankind.