College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Clockwise from top left: Dr Sally Frost, Professors Thomas Konrad, Yin-Zhe Ma, Luca Gammaitoni, Mogens Hogh Jensen, Angelo Vulpiani, Erik Aurell, Neil Turok, and Armita Nourmohammad.

Eminent Physicists Deliver Lectures in Durban

UKZN hosted Nobel Symposium Outreach Seminars delivered by renowned international physicists whose work is changing the landscape of scientific research and advancement in various fields.

The presentations were part of the Nobel in Africa Nobel Symposia Series initiated by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).

The UKZN seminars formed part of a national public outreach programme that bookended the Predictability in Science in the Age of AI symposia series held in the Western Cape by STIAS with Stellenbosch University under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with funding from the Knut & Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Aimed at communicating science to a wider audience, the symposia presented an opportunity for South African and African academics and members of the public and private sectors to come together in a celebration of science and exploration of breakthroughs in the field happening on an international level.

With Nobel Symposia usually closed sessions for scientific deliberations and debate, these were the first Nobel Symposia to be hosted outside Scandinavia on behalf of the Nobel Foundation, bringing leading scientists to Africa and to institutions, including UKZN, to contribute to nurturing the next generation of scholars and intellectual leaders on the continent.

The symposia held at UKZN were convened by Professor Yin-Zhe Ma from the School of Chemistry and Physics and benefited from support from the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science. The programme for the three-day visit included school visits, laboratory tours on the UKZN campus, and even a jazz interaction evening.

‘This is one of the largest high-level delegations to visit our University and the Durban community after the COVID-19 pandemic, which is of course very exciting,’ said Ma.

The hybrid symposia series kicked off with presentations from Professor Neil Turok and Professor Armita Nourmohammad. Turok is the Higgs Chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Emeritus Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. He is also the founder and Board Chair of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, while Nourmohammad is an assistant professor of Physics at the University of Washington and an affiliate investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the United States.

Turok focused on fundamental theories of the universe and new explanations for the cosmos’s extraordinary symmetry on large scales, for the nature of the dark matter and the role of dark energy, as well as predicting the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

Nourmohammad spoke about her research on machine learning approaches to learn interpretable models of protein micro-environments, explaining that proteins are the machinery of life facilitating the key processes that drive living organisms and that their structure and interaction with their environment is determined by the physical arrangement of amino acids. This work is important for understanding the physiological process of adaptive immunity to protect the body against pathogens.

An evening symposium featured lectures from Professor Mogens Hogh Jensen and Professor Angelo Vulpiani of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Rome respectively.

Jensen, a former President of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters and current Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, spoke about complexity in science, giving fascinating examples of the complex phenomena that abound in nature, from ice crystals to ocean flows that express in beautiful patterns. By applying chaos and fractal theories, Jensen explained how these complex phenomena, behaviours and patterns can be understood in terms of simple physical and mathematical systems. He explored complexity in science and society from chaos and fractals to the phenomena of turbulence and avalanches, networks – including those on social media platforms – proteins and genetics, social science, and economics.

Volpiani, who delved into the realm of forecasting what he called a natural motivation for science and practical applications, explored the concepts and methodologies underlying forecasting, specifically methodologies based on first principles and those based on data. He suggested that data, while increasingly abundant and open to analysis, was not a replacement for scientific modelling for making predictions of value for science and society.

The final symposium comprised presentations by Professor Erik Aurell and Professor Luca Gammaitoni. Aurell is Professor of Theoretical Biological Physics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and Gammaitoni is the Director of the Noise in Physical System Laboratory at the Physics Department of the Università di Perugia in Italy.

Aurell spoke about the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, saying the theorem could be seen as a limit of equalities that hold far from thermodynamic equilibrium, termed fluctuation relations (FR) and is used as a data analysis tool. He elaborated on a famous FR and described a paradigm where FRs are derived from time reversals in classical open systems. He explained that FRs are a simple consequence of many physically relevant models, and covered the limits of this paradigm, also touching on recent developments, FR experimental applications, and open questions in the field.

Gammaitoni focused on the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to introduce a new method for modelling physical systems and predicting the future. He emphasised the important role of fluctuations in modelling physical systems, discussing the big data ‘paradise’ that contains all the information needed, if the right questions are asked to extract the information. He also spoke on the consequences of using physical models to identify the right questions, in fields from AI applications to computing and space-time.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Albert Hirasen and supplied