Physics Spotlight

August 2020
Physics Spotlight

Boris Svistunov

Ph.D., Kurchatov Institute (1990)

The Physics Department has chosen Professor Boris Svistunov to participate in this month’s Physics Spotlight! His research interests include Superfluidity and superconductivity, artificial quantum matter, as well as, the theory and practice of quantum and classical Monte Carlo. He enjoys the intricate and sophisticated theoretical constructs that come along with being both a Physicist/ Professor and being a part of a larger effort that expands worldwide.

As another Physics Department Theoretical Condensed Matter Physicist, Professor Svistunov has taught several courses over the years and is currently teaching PHY-601 Classical Mechanics and PHY-614 Intermediate Quantum Mechanics I, Fall/Spring of 2020.

Svistunov is part of the Theoretical Quantum Fluids, Solids and Gases group here at the Amherst campus, regularly partnering with the Simons Foundation, and is also involved with our Precision Many Body Physics Group which began holding a conference once every two years starting in the Fall of 2018. The conference brings like-minded theorists and experimentalists who are interested in the development and application of controlled approaches to quantum matter. To find out more about Boris' research and interests in Physics, please see his Q&A below!

What is your professional background?  What did you major in, where did you attend graduate school and how did you decide where you wanted to go?  Do you have any advice for a student considering graduate school?

Let’s start with explaining the system we had in the Soviet Union. The first stage of higher education is best described as a combination of undergraduate school plus all the basic and certain higher-level graduate courses. That covers the first four and a half years. Then one year is fully dedicated to a supervised diploma project, resulting in the Diploma Thesis that a student has to write and defend.  The result is a diploma—a certificate of a degree somewhat between Masters and PhD. My diploma (with honors) is from Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), 1983; under supervision of Yuri Kagan. The research topic of my diploma was Bose-Einstein condensation of a weakly interacting gas in an external potential. You would probably be surprised to learn that back in early 1980s this fundamental problem remained unsolved.

Yuri Kagan was quite satisfied with my performance and offered me an opportunity to do PhD research under his supervision. Yuri lead a condensed matter theory group at Kurchatov Institute and was also a professor at MEPhI, where he taught an excellent two-semester course of condensed matter theory. This is how I started my PhD program at MEPhI. (Soviet PhD program can be described as a graduate school without graduate courses, with an exception for the course of Marxist Philosophy.)

In 1986, I got a permanent position as a junior researcher in Kagan’s group at Kurchatov Institute. When doing my research at Kurchatov Institute, I collaborated with Yuri Kagan and Georgy Shlyapnikov; both became my PhD Thesis advisors (defended in 1990).

My advice for a student who wants to go to graduate school: Having the right scientific advisor(s) is crucial; try your best to find one (or more), desirably even before formally applying to graduate schools.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?

Make sure your job gives you an opportunity to produce something you are really satisfied with.

In 140 characters, explain your research:

Superfluidity and superconductivity.  Artificial quantum matter.  Theory and practice of quantum and classical Monte Carlo.

What class(s) in the undergraduate curriculum is/are closest to your research?

The closest—not be confused with close—are  Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics.

(To get really close one needs a graduate-level course of quantum field theory.)

Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

Our research is based on quantum-field-theoretical techniques, which we do not teach at the undergraduate (or basic graduate) level. Therefore we do not do research with undergrads. On the good side, I would like to invite undergrads dreaming of a career in physics for an independent study of superfluidity and superconductivity under my supervision. The study will be based on classical field theory that fully captures the essence of the phenomena.

In General, what is your favorite class to teach, past or present?

For an undergraduate course, I would name Classical Mechanics (Physics 421). Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms have a distinct flavor of theoretical physics, the hallmark of which is mathematical abstraction as opposed to visuality. For a graduate course, I would name my course on Superfluidity and Superconductivity, which I taught a couple of times in the past. This course is also available as an independent study for both grads and undergrads.

What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?

(i) Being introduced to beautiful and sophisticated theoretical constructions that go well beyond our everyday experience and imagination, almost too sophisticated to be true, and yet amenable to experimental verification.

(ii) Being a part of a significant worldwide effort.

What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on thus far?

The two partially related (but still rather different) projects I am best known for are the Worm Algorithm and Diagrammatic Monte Carlo. These are numerically exact approaches to address the properties of many-body quantum systems (as well as some classical statistical models). We developed these methods together with Nikolay Prokof’ev and Igor Tupitsyn. Talking of the work on Worm Algorithm, I would like to mention one curious detail: There are three excellent physics journals (Nature, Physical Review Letters, and Physical Review B) that our Worm Algorithm paper was rejected from.

What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I like all sort of outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, backpacking. When I was younger, I was quite serious about mountains. My highest one (7495m) was Peak Communism in Pamirs, Tajikistan (it was later renamed into Somoni Peak). Since moving to the United States back in 2003, I used to enjoy Colorado’s fourteeners during and after my stays at Aspen Center for Physics; Capitol Peak is my favorite. Mount Rainier in Cascades is also very special; camping on the top for two nights is unforgettable. My most recent backpacking trip was in July 2020: Three days in White Mountains with my family.