The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Eric Sharpe, a professor of physics in the College of Science, for his work on mathematical aspects of string theory, which is the framework physicists use to try to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics.
General relativity describes gravity and accounts for orbiting planets and the expanding universe, while quantum mechanics looks at electromagnetism and other nuclear forces that affect the smallest particles. Both theories work extremely well, but at separate scales, and unfortunately the two contradict one another when one tries to extend either into the other’s regime.
In a nutshell, string theory is our current best proposal for how to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics into a single consistent framework. Broadly speaking, Sharpe is interested in using mathematics as a tool and a guide to uncover deeper properties of the theory.
As a practical matter, Sharpe spends much of his time thinking about “compactifications” of string theory. String theory predicts that the universe is 10-dimensional, six more dimensions than we observe. In a compactification, one makes the ansatz — a mathematical hypothesis that has neither been verified nor shown to be false — that those extra six dimensions are rolled up on a small compact six-dimensional space. The topology and geometry of that six-dimensional space then determine the low-energy particles, gauge symmetries, and couplings that one would observe in the macroscopic four-dimensional universe that we see around us.
Sharpe has published more than 75 research studies, edited two books, and his work has received National Science Foundation funding since his arrival at Virginia Tech in 2007. He also was a co-founder and co-organizer of an international conference series on mathematical string theory, which he began as “String-Math 2011” at the University of Pennsylvania. He remains on the scientific committee for String-Math 2016 to begin in Paris in June.
Sharpe received his doctoral degree in physics from Princeton University and his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from North Carolina State University. He did postdoctoral work at Duke University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Utah.