"Biology was the place I entered science as a kid. I used to get these cards from the World Wildlife Federation with pictures of pandas and belugas and raccoons – you know, whatever they put on these cards. And so you grow up already with a natural affinity for living things."
Shamit Kachru’s work is abstract and mathematical, and as a result, his days are spent reading academic journals, working out his thoughts on a pad of paper or a chalkboard and sharing ideas with other physicists. In the big picture, he is on a kind of search for Platonic forms – eternal, unchangeable truths that exist outside of our experience of them. Kachru talks about why he likes administrative positions (it’s not the paperwork), why he recently decided to branch out into theoretical biology and the sense of awe that keeps him going.
“Right now I’m department chair, and I’m also director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics, and so you might look at this and say, ‘OK, this is somebody who is going to turn 50 soon and has decided to be an administrator.’ And this is a total misreading. The thing that interested me about both of those roles is they give you the ability and even force you to interact with even more people who tell you more interesting things that you otherwise wouldn’t hear.
I personally get a lot of joy out of interacting with students. I’ve had graduate students who were wonderful and who play, as I get older, a really important role in my research. I’ve just started taking biology students. It’s a different cohort. They’ll teach me different things. A lot of research is two different people explaining things to each other,then you put those two things together and at that moment you get something new.
I have spent some time in the past couple of years hanging out in the group meetings of Dmitri Petrov’s group and Daniel Fisher’s group in biology and Bio-X, and have heard absolutely fascinating things there about evolutionary experiment and theory. I finally decided that the time was right for me to start trying to contribute my own research to ongoing attempts to understand evolutionary dynamics.
Biology was the place I entered science as a kid. I used to get these cards from the World Wildlife Federation with pictures of pandas and belugas and raccoons – you know, whatever they put on these cards. And so you grow up already with a natural affinity for living things. Only much later when I was on leave from Stanford at the University of California, Santa Barbara, did I meet a prominent physicist, Boris Shraiman, who transitioned to studying theoretical questions in biology.Without any preconception, I spent a lot of my time there listening to the things he works on and going to a workshop. What struck me was what an exciting time it was in their field. What’s happened is people started to do experiments in evolution, and this together with the ability to rapidly sequence genomes opens up a host of questions to scientific inquiry.
Now if you ask, ‘What are motivations to understand how evolution works?’ here I can be practical. The 1918 flu killed millions and millions of people, and sometime there will be another such flu strain and millions and millions of people will die. If you ask, ‘How are we going to combat the flu,’ some of the best ideas involve studying the way that different flu strains’ genetic lines of descent are splitting and branching, to figure out which flu is the most successful, to figure out what the vaccine should be that we use to combat what next year’s flu is likely to be. And that work came out of theoretical physicists working with biologists.
I’m not a religious person, but when you read accounts of religious people about how they feel, there is a feeling of awe people can have. Now, daily life as a scientist, just like daily life as anything, is mostly, you know, you get up and you’re tired and you have to feed the rabbits or whatever you happen to have, and so on and so forth. So we’re not all marveling at the universe all the time. But occasionally in my work, and these are the moments that keep one going, you do encounter something that really inspires awe in a serious way.
For many people, the way it comes about is some fact about nature that’s discovered in an experiment, and that can happen for me too. But as a theorist, another way it really comes about is when some fact about nature, or at least a toy model of something that could be seen in nature, turns out to also have a really deep and fundamental origin in pure mathematics, which as far as I can tell is the closest thing to pure Platonic thought that we have as humans.”
STORY AND PHOTO COURTESY OF Stanford News