Video by Jackie Hennessey
by Jackie Hennessey
New ideas come to mind as Nikodem Poplawski sits on a city bus, commuting from his Milford home to UNH. Equations bubble up in between sets when he’s lifting weights at the gym. Suddenly, he’ll start jotting down an idea on a napkin or pause and commit an equation to memory. “Then I can’t wait to get home to solve it,” he said.
At home, he sits on the floor with a stack of blank paper and a four-color pen, solving the equations in black ink, editing, adjusting and tinkering in red, blue or green.
Is it a muse? Not exactly. He doesn’t wait for ideas; he gently urges them out. “On the way to the gym, I may give myself a physics exercise to see if I can generalize a formalism in classical mechanics, to see how it works in curved space,” he says.
Lift the barbells. Sweat. Think. Lift. Sweat. Think. Solve.
Thinking is central to Poplawki’s life. A senior lecturer, physics coordinator and mentor to three Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students and another student taking an independent study, he was named by Forbes magazine as one of five scientists in the world most likely to become the next Albert Einstein. He is best known for the theory that every black hole is a doorway to another universe, which National Geographic and Science magazines each called “one of the top 10 discoveries of 2010.”
The “next Einstein” is a moniker that would seem to carry a lot of weight or even become a burden. But not for Poplawski. “Pressure?” he questioned. “No, no pressure. It’s a motivation to do more, but I’m motivated anyway.” He’s driven by a love of theoretical physics, which began when he first studied it at age 16. “I said, ‘This is my destiny.’ I knew it,” he said.
The son and brother of Polish artists, Poplawski says beauty lives in physics, just as it does in poetry, opera and visual art. “The universe appears to be very simple, and the laws of physics appear to be simple, beautiful and universal,” he said. “This is exciting.”
Einstein has been a hero of Poplawski’s his whole life because of the breadth of his work and his brilliant revolutionary thinking. And, as it turns out, there’s a kind of six degrees of separation between Poplawski and the genius physicist.
“Albert Einstein was a mentor of Leopold Infeld, who was the doctoral dissertation advisor for Stanisław Bażański, who was my master's thesis advisor at the University of Warsaw,” he said. “This mentorship continues with my students, who have Einstein as their great-great-grand mentor.”
Like Einstein, Poplawski is focused on many ideas, but he is homing in on his black hole theory and trying to solve what many call the Holy Grail of physics, quantum gravity. “The theory of gravity and quantum mechanics are not combined yet. That’s been a goal of physicists for the last 80 to 90 years. My dream is to find one super big theory that connects all theories. That’s what I’m getting ready to do.”
Getting ready means thinking, working on equations and staying in shape to keep his body and mind strong. Sometimes, on a Saturday, he will wake at four in the morning. “I cannot sleep anymore because I am too eager to solve something,” he said. “I will get stomach pain and realize I didn’t have breakfast or lunch, and dinner time has passed and I’m still doing physics.”
His friends are used to his falling away from a conversation for a bit to puzzle out a problem. “Then I am back,” he said.
Even at five years old, growing up in Poland, he was this focused, studying the night sky, notebook in hand, learning the constellations. By 10, he was predicting the exact locations of the planets based on patterns. His family encouraged their “little scientist.” “They bought me a telescope and many books,” he said. “They were very supportive.”
Poplawski went on to study astronomy at the University of Warsaw in Poland, and then came to the United States to study physics at Indiana University, where he received a master’s degree and his Ph.D.
He’s shaped his life around this passion and, since he has been at UNH in his first full-time faculty assignment, he has discovered he loves teaching, especially “igniting a spark in my students,” developing new physics courses and mentoring student researchers. “I applied to UNH because I saw a chance to extend its physics program to more advanced courses such as classical mechanics or the theory of relativity,” he said. “Such classes are not only close to my heart but also they can attract brilliant students from the engineering program at UNH.”
He is grateful, he said to Arts and Sciences Dean Lourdes Alvarez and his department chair Joseph Kolibal for giving him the opportunity to teach. Alvarez said she is “delighted to see Nikodem get the recognition he deserves and to watch him inspire students to study ever more advanced topics in physics.
“He radiates a kind of energy--a boyish enthusiasm for all things physics and many other subjects as well, that one can’t help but be swept up by his joyous scientific curiosity,” she said. “While I can’t imagine anyone speaking more than a couple of minutes with Nikodem and not noticing that he is seriously smart, he is a very modest person.”
Poplawski and civil engineering major Daniel Delgado ’17 are working on a project to see if linear motors used in elevators can be used in electric trains to increase speed and efficiency. Delgado calls the collaboration “the greatest academic recognition I’ve received in my life,” he said. “I’m star struck!”
Delgado said he was utterly surprised one morning last summer as he set out from the West Haven train station to do some research and calculating while riding the rails when the train stopped in Milford and there was professor Poplawski. “We arrived at Milford at 6:15 a.m., and to my pleasant surprise, Dr. Poplawski came trotting down the aisle with a coffee in one hand and a smile across his face,” Delgado said. “He graciously dedicated many hours aboard the trains with me to observe my field research and assist with my calculations. It was one of the greatest demonstrations of dedication, fascination, and pride in my research, and I will always remember the complete surprise he took me by that morning.”
Poplawski, in turn, finds working with his research students a learning experience for him as well. “It’s fascinating because I’m really a hard core theoretical physicist,” said Poplawski. “I do things with pen and paper. My students have their own approach, and I am learning from them. At first I thought there would not be as much of an opportunity to work with my students on theoretical physics. But the more I work on these projects, the more complicated equations I am creating. Then I say, ‘Good! Let’s investigate this.’”