Konstantin Karchev ’15: We Can Bring Space to Our Minds

January 22, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Rumyana Mihaylova ’05

Konstantin Karchev ’15 is a co-founder of the Photography Club, a prominent member of the Cinema Group, and the student who worked on developing the ACS Creativity, Action, and Service portal. The first time he walked into my office and introduced himself, I could not help exclaiming: “Oh, so you are Kosyo Karchev! I’ve heard so much about you!” I quickly realized I was beginning to sound like a fan, and I fan I was indeed. I had seen his photographs, I knew about his silver medal from the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and I was quite curious to ask him the kind of questions that I do not get to ask every day.

Konstantin_Karchev,__Class_of_2015[1]for blog

Give me the dimensions of your place in life right now.

Eighteen floors above ground. I might have jumped already, I don’t know for sure, but I am sure I will miss the ground because I have my distraction beside me. So I’ll fly.[1]

What helped you the most get to where you are?

Can I say “myself”? Seriously, if I choose to name one thing, I’d have to go on talking about everything else. This is not a college application essay. So I’m just going to say I did most of what I’ve done with the great help of myself. At least that’s what I want to think. It’s good to say you have done something on your own. It’s also good to know that there are things you’ve done which you have received help for. It’s good that the helpers know they’ve helped you, so you don’t feel obligated to mention them and can go on pretending it was all your own work.

How did you get interested in Astrophysics?

I wonder when I will finally tell the real story… But here’s a true story:

It was because of an egg. No, not because of a specific egg but because of the philosophical category “Egg,” named for its properties (specifically, the inherent shape). Every egg is egg-shaped.

It was also because of my father’s mackerel (паламуд). The specific mackerel was dead, so we have to deal again with the philosophical category.

The thing is that if you want to preserve a mackerel you need to prepare brine (саламура), which is basically a solution of table salt in water. But the concentration needs to be exact. My father knew it, not in grams or moles per litre, but in stotinki. “Трябва да сложим сол на пет стотинки,” which meant that if you put an egg in the brine, it would float so that the part above the surface was as large as a 5-stotinki coin. This is not a scientific way of determining the concentration of a solution.  It’s “бабини деветини.” It might become a scientific method if an underlying theory is developed. So I set about developing the theory. It required me to investigate the shape of an egg. I approximated it to an ellipsoid. I read the Wikipedia article about the shape, and it was largely concerned with orbital mechanics. I decided to enter the Astronomy Olympiad and nine months later I won an international silver medal.

Where is the edge of space?

According to some, it’s in milking cows. I know this is a ridiculous answer, so I’ll hasten to explain where it comes from. In ninth grade, my best friend and I were discussing a similar question (or at least one that would lead us to answering this one) with Duc Do (Class of 2012) while we were waiting in a traffic jam on the ring road. Initially it was a discussion about what time is, and I came to express the view that I will present in the next paragraph after announcing it as the “serious answer.” I might have expressed it a bit too loudly because I had evidently vexed a group of fellow passengers with my nonsense, and so they advised me to occupy myself in more meaningful activities like learning how to milk a cow and then theorize about the Universe in a loud voice. My friend said he had milked a cow.

Christmas in the Maldives, photo by Konstantin Karchev.jpg

Christmas in the Maldives (Photograph by Konstantin Karchev ’15)

But the serious answer is this: the edge of space is, of course, everywhere you turn in much the same way as that when you are on an island, the edge of that island (the coastline) lies in every direction. The trick with space is that it is virtually unlimited- i.e. its edge does not lie in space but in time. And so the edge is equally far away (back in time) in all (spatial) directions. We might imagine the Earth to represent our whole universe (like a whole lot of people before us did; but here we will need the Earth to be spherical), and if we start from Bulgaria in a number of random directions and travel “forward” (on the surface of Earth) for about 20000 km, we will all meet in a single spot somewhere off the coast of New Zealand. That’s the edge, the furthest from the starting point you can get. And that’s the Big Bang. You can’t go further back in time. Of course, that would be too easy an analogy, if it were true. It is not, for on Earth the position of your “edge” depends on the location of your initial position, and in “real life” it doesn’t. We all end up in the same spot, no matter where we start from. (~ Всички сме в кюпа.)

Do you think our explorations of space aim at domesticating it?

No. You see, “domesticate” is a weird word. Do we want to train space to behave in a way we want it to? Can we? No. We certainly may use it. But we still can’t. Space is just too big. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Only the trips we can currently make down to the chemist’s have a scientific purpose. And that’s the beauty of it. We may never reach anything as remotely distant as another star, but we know about the Big Bang and galaxies and everything in-between, and before and after. Just by looking. We don’t need to travel. We can bring space to our homes, to our notebooks and to our minds.

You are a fantastic photographer and a brilliant physicist. How do you view the relationship between Science and Art?

Formally, my opinion (which I have held in the course of a discourse on the topic) is that Art is an intellectual activity of a much lower rank than Science. In short, Art is an expression of Philosophy, a means of conveying Perception; as such it is subordinate to Perception and guided by it, no matter how much the expressionists aimed to achieve the opposite. And Science is, in its essence, the bridge between Philosophy and Reality which unites them (here we must provide that Reality does exist). Formally, then, Science is master of Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, and Science is a double master of Art.

Mask (ACS BG Drama), photo by Konstantin Karchev

Mask (Photograph by Konstantin Karchev ’15)

Without going into such philosophical sophistications, art is just another way of describing reality on par with mathematics. An inquirer (a thinker) who uses art to describe the world is an artist, and one who uses mathematics is a scientist. Even an abstract artist describes the world because his abstractions become part of the world. The mathematical analog is a self-supporting claim like “one equals one if and only if one equals one” because it targets itself only, just like abstract art. That is why I believe it to be meaningless. There are examples of abstract science as well: take String Theory. Meaningless. But if a form of art touches on reality, draws something from it but at the same time adds a new dimension, it gets nearer to “non-abstract” (meaningful, I’d say) science. Photography is an example. It adds the dimension of frozen time, of momentary permanence, of depth, of perspective. Science uses those as well: “ the very small period of time in which A remains constant”, distance, angles.

Here is the short answer: I believe that everything can be united within a single category. In the context of that category, art and science and elephants are the same.

Do you have a favorite breakthrough in the field of Astrophysics?

Now that you’ve asked me, I do. I think it is relatively well known that the Universe is expanding. I don’t know about the awareness of the fact (accepted opinion) that it does so at an accelerated pace. This “breakthrough” was postulated by Einstein but completely illegitimately. He just added a factor to one of his equations of general relativity. It was called the “cosmological constant” and “my greatest blunder” by Einstein. Then it was disregarded for almost a century until it was found to be a very good way of describing the accelerating universe, as observed around the turn of the millennium. In 2011 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for that breakthrough to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess.

Incidentally, one of the team leaders of the national team of astrophysicists, Mr. Karavasilev, told me the story of how he cornered Dr. Schmidt (figuratively- they were having dinner at a conference) with the question, “What if the dwarves were spinning?” that could shake the discovery. Nothing is certain, everything is relative.

18 floors above the ground

18 floors above the ground

Is there an image you have always wanted to capture?

At the moment, yes, and it does feel like I’ve wanted to capture it all my life. It involves me and another person. It’s strange that I’ve become more of a people photographer. I’ve always thought I want to capture the beauty of the Universe. Maybe it’s all the same thing.

Do you think that parallel universes may exist?

Well, sure, but there wouldn’t be any way for us to know, let alone interact with them. That’s the point of them being parallel: they do not cross ours. But could they be so infinitely close, that they are almost ours? Can we hop across that infinitely small distance? Sure, I think we can. I think we do it all the *time.* Think about it. Every second it’s a different Universe, just a little bit different from the previous one. You exist in only one of the universes (in only one moment at a *time*), but are always on the move between whole universes.

Tell us about your most recent academic success.

I received 104% on Mr. Dimitrov’s history test…

Okay, fine, I won a silver medal at the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Big deal, I should have won the gold but I didn’t. There were seven Romanians with gold medals at the Olympiad in Romania and five Iranians. But I hadn’t solved the problems perfectly, that’s a fact. I was disappointed. I thought I had disappointed the people who believed I could get the gold. It turned out that I hadn’t, but that they were proud.

And the same thing happened at the National Fall Competition in Physics, Special theme (?! — специална тема, the physicists will know). I placed fifth. But this time it was an error on the part of the judges. There’s no need to be all vocal about it, though. I wasn’t perfect again.

That’s why I think a 100% is a bigger success than a medal. A medal is comparative. It means there weren’t enough people to beat me. A 100% is absolute, objective, and nobody can deny it.

What is the best part of attending an International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics?

Being in a different country than the one your parents are in.

It’s the whole atmosphere. Not so much that you are among the smartest people your age, but that you are among the smartest people your age, and you might turn out to be even smarter than them. The anticipation for the closing ceremony when you will receive the medal and head back to the living quarters and not sleep all night but instead… I’d best not give details, but the general feeling is one of supreme exaltation.

Tell us one scientific fact that can inspire a short story.

The Earth is round. It’s a tragedy with a character vs. society conflict.

Could you describe the tangible aspects of your “ideal” self – your job, your home, your social life, your hobbies, and your achievements?  Your “ideal” self is not restrained by the limitations of reality.

I can theorize about them:

My home is the first aspect, because it’s the easiest to describe. I have a pretty perfect home now. It’s on the eighteenth floor. It has a Dark Side of the Moon fresco that I painted (nearly) myself (props to Dave for helping me). I live in it alone. That last part is both awesome and a bit “wrong” (in the sense that sometimes I think it shouldn’t be so; I feel that I don’t want to live alone from time to time). It’s awesome because… (see the second question). It feels wrong because I know the person I want to live with. She’s the only thing that’s missing here. And a sign on the door, saying “The Karchev manor”. Egocentric, I know.

A social life is something that I’ve been having less of this year in favor of a true adult life. I’ve never been a fan of having a wide circle of friends. Maybe of broad social interactions, often one sided. I want to be known, I can’t deny. But at the end of the day, it won’t matter, I know.

With regard to work and hobbies I am extremely confused. I know I want to be involved with physics in one way or another. But it’s again a very egotistic desire, the desire for knowledge. I just want to continue being fascinated by physics and mathematics (and avoid being disinterested in mathematics, if I can). I don’t know what I want to do with that knowledge. With photography and programming, my main hobbies, well, I want to believe I bring joy to people (all the banality)… Yeah, but I think other people think so too, and that’s as satisfactory to me as I’d like it to be.

But seriously, I am a very confused individual and rarely think about “my ideal self”. No, wait, I actually do, for a huge portion of my time, at that. I do think of my current self a lot.

Does reality have limitations?

I touched on them in the question about the edge of space. The only two real limitations are the speed of light and epistemology. The former is straight-forward (and curving around massive objects). You just can’t travel faster than light. That’s a pity because sometimes you need to do immense amounts of work and you would very much like to be able to be a bit faster. But being faster than light requires you to do more than an infinite amount of work, so that’s ruled out.

Giraffes in Canada - one of the wonders of the Universe, photo by Konstantin Karchev

Christmas in the Maldives (Photograph by Konstantin Karchev ’15)

What I mean by “epistemology” is “how do I know?” and specifically, “How do I know how long [in space or time] something is?” It all boils down to the suitable choice of a meter stick, of a unit of measurement. Have you thought about units of length? The inch? This much (showing the distance between the thumb and index finger). The foot? This much (making a step). The meter? This much (spreading one’s hands a reasonable amount). They are all connected to the human body in a way. They are useful. There is something useful that is a meter long (a stick for fighting wild animals on prehistoric Earth, for example). One of my favorite passages from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy deals with the currency of a planet, and the “coins” of that currency are “triangular rubber coins six thousand eight hundred miles along each side.” That’s impractical. So coins are made just as large enough to be held in the hand or between two fingers. But what about time? The second? How much is a second? It’s the time it takes you to say “a second”. That’s natural enough. But what if you can’t speak? When you are a baby, what are your natural units of time? I think it’s the quickness of your thoughts. How quickly can you think of a second? If you think faster, you can think more things for a period of time, and so that period will seem longer. That’s why time seems to pass very quickly to some and very slowly to others.

We usually ask alumni if they have a message to current students. Do you have a message to the alumni community?

Well, my job is way harder than the alumni’s; they can give a message about life at ACS, but I can’t give one about real life. But:

“If real life isn’t exactly as fun as the college, you’re either doing it wrong, or have done the college right, or both.”


[1] I feel the need to explain that, otherwise it’ll sound too suicidal. With a citation: “How to fly (from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy): You must learn how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.”

The interview was first published in December 2014 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.

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