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Physics-math major Cukierman wins Jefferson Prize

  • Jefferson Prize winner
    Jefferson Prize winner  Ari Cukierman '12 enrolled at William & Mary with the intention of majoring in music and philosophy. After switching to physics and math, he has made important contributions to research in both departments.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Ari Cukierman enrolled as a freshman at William & Mary intending to major in music and philosophy. He’ll graduate near the top of his class of 2012 as a physics-math double major, with at least one important peer-reviewed paper to his credit.

Cukierman is the 2012 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed at Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the College.

Cukierman became interested in the workings of the cosmos at an early age, when his mother would take him outside to look up at the stars. The back-yard astronomy went far beyond identification of the Big Dipper.

“My mother wasn’t a scientist,” Cukierman said, “but she was able to tell me something about the astrophysics of it all.”

He grew up with an interest in physics and benefited from the curriculum of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. But Cukierman also was interested in music—piano, guitar, choral singing and even composition. In high school, Cukierman won a competition sponsored by the Alexandria Choral Society for an original work based on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Cukierman says that after some serious thought on what he wanted to study at William & Mary, he began focusing on math and physics. In his sophomore year, he met Professor of Physics Christopher Carone in Carone’s Advanced Classical Mechanics course. Carone became Cukierman’s mentor and advisor in his honors thesis research on dark matter. Dark matter is a hypothetical explanation for anomalies that scientists have observed in the rotational motion of distant galaxies.

“Dark matter is a substance that doesn’t emit or scatter light. We have various reasons for believing that it exists, but we’re not certain that it exists,” Cukierman explains. “We’re pretty confident, though, because we can detect its gravitational influence on things that we can see.”

Cukierman joined Carone and graduate student Reinard Primulando in investigating a novel approach to dark matter. The original conception of dark matter was a stable, non-decaying particle, Carone says, “But what if dark matter were just a little bit unstable? Ever so rarely, one of these dark-matter particles will decay.”

If dark matter does indeed decay, it could explain another puzzle of physics, the larger-than-expected observations of cosmic-ray electrons and positrons. Further, the collaborators posited something that Carone calls “even more exotic”: a dark-matter particle that decays primarily into three different particles.

Cukierman, along with Carone and Primulando, published their paper, “On the Cosmic-Ray Spectra of Three-Body Lepton-Flavor-Violating Dark Matter Decays,” in 2011 in the respected peer-reviewed journal Physics Letters B. Cukierman was an important contributor, Carone said.

“Ari obtained consistent results that required complicated numerical modeling as quickly and accurately as my fifth-year Ph.D. student,” Carone wrote in a letter in support of Cukierman’s nomination.

Cukierman also has done research in the math department, in which he is working on a second honors thesis. Working on a National Science Foundation-funded CSUMS program with Gexin Yu, assistant professor of mathematics, Cukierman made some improvements to Yu’s investigation of graph theory.

“I showed the proof to several colleagues and they didn’t believe that it was written by an undergraduate student who just had one course in mathematical proofs,” Yu wrote in his letter of support. Cukierman’s findings were included in a paper, "New Bounds on the Minimum Density of a Vertex Identifying Code for the Infinite Hexagonal Grid," now under review at a leading mathematics journal.

Chancellor Professor and Physics Chair David Armstrong nominated Cukierman on behalf of the department, noting that his 3.87 GPA is the highest in the graduating class of physics majors.

“Ari has enormous potential as a physicist, based on his academic record, his research activities, and his interactions with faculty and students,” wrote Armstrong. “Ari intends to continue his studies in graduate school, and he is well positioned to be accepted into many of the top physics graduate programs.”