NSF grant will help DeVito study the shape of the universe

Dr. Jason DeVito, professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Tennessee at Martin, earned a second consecutive three-year award from the National Science Foundation that will go toward his study in how the universe is shaped.

The award totals $136,007 and will help fund the project “RUI: Quotient Spaces and the Double-Soul Conjecture.”

DeVito will receive two academic months of financial support during the summer term each year and will be funded for travel to the Joint Mathematics Meetings annually as well as the Workshop on Curvature and Global Shape in Germany and the United Kingdom each year.

DeVito earned a similar NSF award in 2021, which will expire on June 30, 2024, for “RUI: Biquotients, Cohomogeneity-One Manifolds, and Double Disk Bundles.”

“The acronym RUI actually stands for ‘Research at Undergraduate Institutions,’” DeVito explained in an email response to questions about the NSF funding. “The main idea is that the National Science Foundation tries to level the playing field, so to speak, when it comes to supporting research.

“They realize that someone like me, who regularly teaches four courses a semester, cannot reasonably have the same kind of research output as someone at an institution like Harvard, where a more typical teaching load is two to three courses for the entire year. As such, the NSF has set aside some funds specifically for funding research at undergraduate institutions: the RUI program.”

The projects that DeVito earned both NSF awards for are based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which predicts that the curvature of the universe is a four-dimensional shape called space-time that is determined by the matter and energy within it.

“From measurements physicists have done, it appears that, on average, our universe is either flat (zero curvature) or slightly positively curved,” DeVito stated. “Here, positive curvature refers to something like the surface of a sphere. This leads to a math question that I am interested in: What are all the four-dimensional shapes whose curvature is zero or positive?

“But, there’s a twist. Some versions of quantum mechanics suggest that our universe is actually 10-dimensional – others 13. Who is right? I have no idea, but it means to me that there’s nothing special about the math question in four dimensions. So, a better question to me is: What are all the shapes whose curvature is zero or positive?”

The current grant and the previous grant aim to help DeVito answer this question. Much of the funding will pay DeVito for two months of summer work for this project. The remainder will be used for many other things, including paying undergraduate students during undergraduate research projects, paying for certain supplies and paying for travel to conferences or to go visit colleagues in order to facilitate joint research.

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