An Interview with Mikhail Medvedev

Q & A with Dr. Mikhail V. Medvedev

Mikhail (Misha) Medvedev is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas. He specializes in Theoretical Astrophysics, High-Energy and Plasma Astrophysics, Cosmology and Space Physics. He spent his sabbatical of Spring 2017 at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Institute for Theory and Computation.

Q: Dr. Medvedev, what prompted you to choose the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) as the place to spend your sabbatical?

Harvard-Smithsonian CfA overall is by far the world’s best and most diverse research center in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, space physics and related branches of science. Within CfA, ITC stands out as a truly unique Theoretical and Computational Astrophysics center devoted to in-depth studies of our universe. The unique collection of the distinguished, eminent scientists and exceptionally talented young researchers that ITC has, as well as a great number (tens if not hundreds) of short and long-term visitors – the world recognized experts in nearly all branches of astrophysics and cosmology – is what makes ITC one-of-a-kind. To have a chance to interact with ITC members on a daily basis is what makes this place so much scientifically attractive.

Q: What were your goals and what did you hope to accomplish during your stay?

I have diverse interests in theoretical astrophysics, ranging from high-energy astrophysics (including gamma-ray bursts and collisionless shocks, accretion flows onto compact objects, relativistic jets and more) to large-scale structure and cosmology (physics of galaxy clusters, dark matter). Of course, I had a few projects I planned to work on with ITC researchers. They all proceeded very well. Furthermore, once one is immersed in the creative and enthusiastic atmosphere at ITC, more ideas and projects arise. Several collaborative projects have arisen during my sabbatical this time, one already resulted in a publication, others are in progress.

Q: Did you think your time spent at the ITC was productive?

I think it is very important to have long-term visits. I do not mean that short-term visits are bad. Quite the opposite: they are good to quickly exchange ideas with peers, hear some news, present your own findings. However, it is only long-term visits that give us opportunity to be immersed in novel (or, for some, “long-forgotten”) atmosphere of active scientific life and to do real collaborative work with easy and frequent discussions. To give you an example of how productive this may be, let me mention interesting work we’ve completed with Avi Loeb on the abundance of magnetic monopoles in the universe. The main idea to use plasma physics to describe monopoles on cosmic scales came out of blue, during one of our conversations. This idea turned out to be very powerful and allowed us to constrain the density of monopoles in the universe by a few orders of magnitude and rule them out as a candidate for dark matter.

Q: Were there specific researchers you wanted to interact with?

Given my fairly diverse research interests, I interacted with many people at ITC and CfA. I am very grateful to Avi Loeb and Ramesh Narayan, with whom I interacted very frequently and have had wonderful discussions on various subjects in astrophysics and physics in general. I am also grateful to many ITC and CfA members and Harvard faculty, particularly Daniel Eisenstein, Douglas Finkbeiner, Lars Hernquist, Rosanne Di Stefano, Edo Berger, Eric Keto, Alexey Vikhlinin, Sheperd Doeleman, and others, for insightful and interesting discussions.

Q: What do you think are the long-term outcomes of a sabbatical spent at the ITC?

Like I said before, it is crucial for us scientists to have long-term sabbatical visits to places like ITC. Fairly often, they result in long-term collaborations. Here is an example: during this sabbatical, I have been involved in the research done by the research group of Ramesh Narayan. During our meetings we have been discussing physical principles that govern electron energization in astrophysical plasmas, in particular in accretion flows. This is a major problem that escapes solution for a couple of decades, at least. Yet, it is of paramount importance for making accurate observational predictions from numerical modeling of accretion flows around black holes and testing them against data obtained with, for example, the Event Horizon Telescope. Thus, our ongoing project on how energy cascade proceeds in turbulent astrophysical plasmas and how much energy is dissipated by the electrons vs ions is a great example of a long-term collaboration that is an outcome of this sabbatical.

Q: If you have any advice for early career researchers on how to choose their collaborators, what would you tell them?

It is impossible to give a unique and absolute answer to this question. Be active! Do not expect that collaborators come to you. Reach out to experts yourself, ask questions. Be truly interested in people’s research and ideas. Generate your own ideas, think outside the box. And, of course, learn science, enjoy science and do not forget to work hard.