Profile: Arlie Petters

  • Posted 07.24.07
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) How does a poor kid from Belize become one of the world's premier researchers in the esoteric field of gravitational lensing? Hard work and persistence help, as NOVA scienceNOW reports in this profile of Arlie Petters, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Duke University.

Running Time: 08:27


Profile: Arlie Petters

PBS air date: July 24, 2007

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Hey, that's me, back when I was in graduate school, at an astrophysics conference overseas. And that's me as a smiley post-doc at Princeton University with one of my buddies from the math department, Arlie Petters.

Today, Arlie is one of the world's leading experts in what happens to light during its long journey across the universe. But Arlie's own journey to becoming a scientist, although not quite as long, is just as interesting.

When Arlie Petters comes home to his native Belize everybody wants his attention, from kids...

ARLIE PETTERS (Duke University): So you must put them back so they could grow big, right? The way you can grow big.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: the ministers. I don't mean clergy. I'm talking about the Minister of Education...

FRANCIS FONSECA (Minister of Education, Belize): We're very, very proud of Dr. Petters.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: ...and the Prime Minister.

SAID MUSA (Prime Minister, Belize): He represents, in my mind, what a Belizean can do.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie is a national hero. He never raises his voice or does anything to draw attention to himself; he lets his ideas do all the talking.

Born and raised in the Caribbean sun, he has always had an intimate relationship with light.

ARLIE PETTERS: Light is a great messenger, traveling billions and billions of light years, carrying secrets.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie knows all about long and arduous journeys. His began in Belize, but it took him to Duke University, where he is a member of both the physics and math departments, leading the way in the field of gravitational lensing.

ARLIE PETTERS: You could think of the lens in my glasses as an example of a gravitational field, in that light passes through it. It may get deflected, it may even be slowed down, and this impact on the light ray comes under the fancy name, gravitational lensing.

DAVID SPERGEL (Princeton University): A lens that has an effect a lot like gravitational lensing is the surface of a pool. Light...if you've ever looked at a nice, sunny day, at the bottom of a pool, what you see is light comes in, gets deflected by the ripples on the pool and gets focused. We call that pattern "caustics."

ARLIE PETTERS: The word caustic means burning bright. If you look in your coffee cup, you're going to see one of the most common examples of caustics. Where you have two arcs that abut each other into a sharp point called a cusp.

DAVID SPERGEL: The same thing happens on a cosmological scale. Let's say you're looking at a distant galaxy. And light from that galaxy has to pass through other galaxies, through clusters.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: How that light bends and careens through space tells us a lot about what we can't see, and that's most of what's out there.

ARLIE PETTERS: One of the deep mysteries about our universe is that about 96 percent of it, we don't really know what it is.

DAVID SPERGEL: These gravitational lensing effects tell us a great deal about the physics of the universe because instead of telling us about what's going on with the light, we can see what's going on with the matter.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie boldly went where no mathematician had gone before. He devised a single mathematical formula that could reliably measure how the gravity of many objects, such as galaxies and black holes, shape light as it passes by. His calculation will help astrophysicists determine the structure and environment of objects they can't see.

ARLIE PETTERS: We could then think of gravitational lensing as a map, indeed.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie's pioneering work has won him many awards. And he's received great notice right here on planet Earth. He's the first African-American to earn tenure in the math department at Duke University.

ARLIE PETTERS: We have a very long way to go. In mathematics for example, you have an average of about just one percent of Ph.D.s going to African-Americans, each year, each year. And that is dismal.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: But Arlie understands how circumstances can interfere with learning. He was born in the small Central American country of Belize. He grew up poor in the city of Dangriga. You could count the telephones in his neighborhood on one hand, yet 6-year-old Arlie carried around a makeshift briefcase.

ARLIE PETTERS: I got a lot of pleasure just studying for hours and hours.

BERNICE WAIGHT (Arlie Petters' Grandmother): Sometimes I would have to tell him to go out and with the other boys. He would go out for a few moments and come right back.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: When he was a teenager, his mother summoned him to live with her in Brooklyn.

ARLIE PETTERS: That was quite a shock for me. And the first thing you had to do was to get muscles. And you had to know how to fight.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie began Hunter College, but family friction left him without a home. Ready to give up and go back to Belize, he made one last desperate attempt to stay in school. He showed up on the doorstep of Jim Wyche, head of a minority fellowship program.

JIM WYCHE (Hunter College, 1980–1990): And before I could get the key in, he jumped up out of, obviously, a dead sleep and said to me, very groggily, he said, "Are you Dr. Wyche?" I said, "Yes, sir, I am."

ARLIE PETTERS: And I told him my situation.

JIM WYCHE: It was very clear that he had done some research.

ARLIE PETTERS: And I said, "I would give you my transcript. And I tell you this: I will not let you down."

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Time and again, Arlie Petters has defied gravity.

ARLIE PETTERS: It must have been within a couple of weeks or so, Jim said, "You have the scholarship." And he said, "Not only that, we are making arrangements for you to move into Hunter College dorms."

And I couldn't believe it. It was like a miracle, yeah?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Arlie made the best of the help he received. He graduated from Hunter College. This is his celebration dinner.

ARLIE PETTERS: We are the graduating seniors.


ARLIE PETTERS: Dr. Wyche. Yeah!

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: He went on to MIT and then taught at Princeton University, before arriving at Duke.

ARLIE PETTERS: You know, I was blessed to have had many people help me along my path in life. And so, in a sense, I see myself as playing the role of sharing with others the point of view of people that are struggling.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: These days, Arlie is trying to fulfill what may be his greatest vision of all. He has gone back to Dangriga, where light and caustics are plenty, but resources can be thin. Arlie has gone back to give back.

Amidst the wooden houses, on roads shared by ducks and SUVs, Arlie has created the Petters Research Institute, a place where kids from all over the country, kids like Arlie, can come to excel in math and science and life.

ARLIE PETTERS: It allows you to develop thinking skills. It allows you to wonder about great things you want to do in life, aspirations. And that was very special to me.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: He has created a haven for them. It's a place where they don't have to worry about creature comforts or meals, just equations.

GIRL: I'm just glad that he actually recognized the country he came from.

BOY: He's trying to help out Belize.

BOY: One day I'd like to be like him, and try to give back to my community.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And he's helped to develop a curriculum to improve math and science education across the entire country, as Belize puts its hope in technology as an economic alternative to tourism.

SAID MUSA: Science and technology is where it's at in the world of tomorrow. And we have to get there. So the future is there for us. And Arlie represents that future.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Belize has put a lot of hope in the quiet kid from Dangriga who made it, then made it back.

ARLIE PETTERS: If I can get a child to be charged up and to believe in himself, to believe in herself, that they can do great things in life...whenever I see that I've accomplished to have that spark go off in a child, those are the things I am most proud of.


Arlie Petters

PBS air date: July 24, 2007

Edited by
Robe Imbriano & David Chmura
Produced and Directed by
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0229297.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Said Musa
Prime Minister, Belize
Arlie Petters
Duke University
David Spergel
Princeton University
Bernice Waight
Arlie's Grandmother
Jim Wyche
North Carolina State University

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