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June 6, 2002 A thinker poised between physics and math



Igor Khavkine

An aptitude for abstract scientific ideas: problem-solver Igor Khavkine

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Anna Bratulic

Physics is full of problems. Some are easy enough to be worked out in the time it takes to complete an exam, but others are conundrums that continue to stump scholars.

Physics graduate and math enthusiast Igor Khavkine has done his share of the first kind with a great deal of success, and hopes to move on to the others in the near future.

Since beginning university, Khavkine entered the William Lowell Putnam math competition, a test administered by the Mathematical Association of America, with some 2,500 participants from Canada and the U.S. He finished among the top 300 over the past two years. He also sat for the Canadian Association of Physicists Prize exams and finished in the top 10 in the last two years.

Khavkine says that he has always had an aptitude for handling abstract scientific ideas. His father, who also has a degree in physics, stoked his curiosity by answering his more advanced questions when regular classes didn’t prove challenging enough. A little luck in growing up in an intellectually nurturing environment doesn’t hurt, he says. “I think many smart people get turned off by math and physics because of bad experiences in high school or CEGEP.”

As he bids Concordia’s Physics Department farewell, the Moscow native says that he’ll be combining his two passions in his graduate studies. “I’ve always had a really hard time choosing the career path between math and physics, so I thought that by focusing on mathematical physics I wouldn’t have to make that choice any more.”

Khavkine has decided to explore the field of developing mathematical models to explain the physical world. He is deciding between calculating the entropy, or amount of disorder, in black holes, a field otherwise known as black hole thermodynamics, or studying quantum information theory, which deals with computers based on quantum mechanical theories.