The building blocks of scientific enquiry

Professor Robert de Mello Koch. (University of the Witwatersrand)

Professor Robert de Mello Koch. (University of the Witwatersrand)

Professor Robert de Mello Koch at the University of the Witwatersrand admits that his field of study is abstract – but then, that is the nature of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Through the Research Chair in Fundamental Physics and String Theory he is trying to build simple examples to understand these complex, theoretical issues using string theory.

“String theory,” he says, “is a promising guess for a new unified framework that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity in a way that builds a better understanding of the Universe and that makes sense on all scales – large or small – without breaking down. This is done by developing new mathematical techniques and applying them to problems that are tough enough to be interesting and teach us something, but also easy enough to be solved. We expect to make progress with the most basic issues in string theory by thoroughly understanding these simple examples.”

In spite of the speculative nature of this line of research, De Mello Koch maintains that even developing countries need fundamental scientific research, because the knowledge and discipline created in the process feed directly into applied research.

He argues that the “fundamental science” of today is the “applied science” of tomorrow, and that applied work of the highest quality can only be successfully carried out if the research workers have access to people working in fundamental fields.

“This kind of interplay between fundamental and applied research is an essential ingredient for success,” he says.

His Research Chair has been game-changing in enabling the training of graduate students in theoretical physics, which requires extended effort over years, he says. The freedom to focus on these students would not have been possible had he not been awarded the Chair, nor would international collaborations and interaction been possible for these students.