By Eileen McCluskey
First published in Technology Review (Jan/Feb 2009)
Arlie Petters talks with Belize student Leah Waight.
Arlie Petters, a professor of pure mathematics, physics, and business administration at Duke University, is a man of many dimensions. World renowned for his work in gravitational lensing, which explains how light bends over massive distances, Petters is now applying that theory at a new astrophysical frontier: he's seeking to prove that the universe has a fourth spatial dimension.
Using newly available data, Petters and astronomer Charles Keeton of Rutgers University are searching for evidence of tiny black holes in the solar system. Finding these black holes would support a recent cosmological theory that envisions the visible universe as a membrane adrift in a larger, higher-dimensional universe. Petters and Keeton theorize that "brane-world" black holes would cause passing gamma rays to bend in a specific way.
Proving brane-world theory is a tough challenge, but Petters is used to them. In 1979, he immigrated from Belize to the U.S., where he moved in with relatives. Shortly after he arrived, while he was studying mathematics and physics at Hunter College in New York, household tensions forced him to find a new place to live. "I was 18 years old and penniless," he recalls. "I had to find a way to stay in the U.S. or give up my education and return to Belize." With the help of a professor, Petters landed a full scholarship and completed an accelerated bachelor's and master's program in 1986.
"I left Hunter College as a star," says Petters. He laughs. "Then I came to MIT. MIT took me to new levels. I saw intellectual intensity there of the first order." After earning his PhD, he taught at MIT and Princeton before Duke recruited him in 1998.
In 2005 he founded the Petters Research Institute in Belize to "teach young people to use technical know-how to start businesses and raise their standard of living." At the institute, children as young as 10 learn how to assemble working computers. Older students delve into higher-level mathematics to understand finance, hurricanes, tumor growth rates, structural engineering, and more.
Petters has received numerous academic and humanitarian honors, plus an order of chivalry from Queen Elizabeth. In 2006, his portrait was added to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' Portrait Gallery of Distinguished African-American Scientists. He is also the first African-American to be tenured in Duke's mathematics department.
In his spare time, Petters enjoys watching movies-"everything from independent films to Disney cartoons." He and his wife, Marcia, a compliance and risk manager with Blue Cross Blue Shield, live in North Carolina and Belize.