The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Arlie Petters

Mathematician, physicist and business professor Arlie Petters was born on February 8, 1964 in Dangriga, Belize. As a child, he lived with his grandparents and was captivated by the mystery of the skies. In 1979, Petters left Belize to live with his mother in the United States. After graduating from Canarsie High School in Brooklyn, New York, Petters enrolled at Hunter College. Family problems left Petters homeless, but he received a Minority Access to Research Careers Fellowship that allowed him to stay in school. In 1986, Petters graduated from Hunter College with his B.A/M.A. interdisciplinary degree in mathematics and physics. He continued his studies with a dual concentration in mathematics and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning his Ph.D. degree in 1991. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Singularities in Gravitational Microlensing." During the summers of 1986 to 1991, Petters worked as a Corporate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) Fellow at Bell Laboratories.

Following graduation, Petters became an instructor of pure mathematics at MIT. In 1993, Petters joined the faculty of Princeton University as an assistant professor of mathematics. He served as the co-director of graduate studies in mathematics from 1996 to 1998. Petters left Princeton in 1998 to join the faculty of Duke University as the William and Sue Gross Associate Professor. Petters was the lead author of the book, Singularity Theory and Gravitational Lensing in 2001, which outlined the first single mathematical theory to explain gravitational lensing. He became a full professor in 2003 and was the first African American at Duke University to receive tenure in the mathematics department. In 2005, Petters founded the Petters Research Institute to train Belizean students in the STEM disciplines. In 2008, he received a triple appointment to the departments of mathematics, physics and business administration, and in 2009, he was awarded the Benjamin Powell endowed chair. In 2010, Petters was appointed to serve as chairman on the Council of Science Advisors to the Prime Minister of Belize.
He also served as visiting professor at the Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik, Oxford University, Harvard University, Princeton University and was a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor of physics at MIT.

Petters has received numerous awards including the Sloan Research Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Early Career Grant Award. He was the first recipient of the Blackwell-Tapia Prize in Mathematical Science. He also received much recognition for his philanthropic efforts in Belize including the Award for Service to the Educational Development of Belize from the Friends in Support of the Diocese in Belize. Petters was also named by the Queen of England to Membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Petters served on the Board of Governors for the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications and on the Board of Trustees for the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics. He is a member of the American Mathematical Society, American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. Petters lives with his wife Elizabeth Petters in Durham, North Carolina.

Arlie Petters was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 21, 2012.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Marital Status


Middle Name



Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Hunter College

Canarsie High School

Ecumenical High School

Epworth Methodist School

Search Occupation Category
First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season



National Science Foundation

Favorite Vacation Destination


Favorite Quote

Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

North Carolina

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Belizian Food

Short Description

Business professor, mathematician, and physicist Arlie Petters (1964 - ) is a foremost scholar on gravitational lensing and has served as chairman on the Council of Science Advisors to the Prime Minister of Belize since 2010.


Council of Science Advisors to the Prime Minister of Belize

Duke University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Petters Research Institute

Princeton University

Bell Laboratories

Harvard University

Oxford University

Max-Plank -Institut fur Astrophysik

Main Sponsor
Main Sponsor URL
Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Arlie Petters' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about his mother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters describes his biological father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters talks about his stepfather, Cecil Petters

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters describes his grandmother, Bernice Waight

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters talks about how his parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about his mother's immigration to the United States

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters recalls his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters talks about his childhood neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Arlie Petters describes the sights, smells, and sounds of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Arlie Petters talks about the interactions between Garifunas and Creoles in Dangriga

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Arlie Petters talks about the culture of Dangriga, Belize

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters talks about radio and television during his childhood

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters describes his curious and pensive nature as a child

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters talks about Chinese culture in Belize

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about his early education and the mentors that fostered his curiosity

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters reflects on the psychological effects of racism on African Americans

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters shares his first impressions of the United States

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Arlie Petters talks about his experience at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn, New York

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters talks about his decision to become a scientist

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters talks about his experience at Hunter College

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters talks about Einsten's theory of relativity

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters describes his difficult relationship with his stepfather and his Minority Access to Research Careers Scholarship

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters talks about the healing of his family relationships

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters talks about his doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters discusses his research on the mathematical theory of gravitational lensing

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters talks about the applications of math for physics, astronomy, and business

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters discusses his mathematical theory of shadow patterns in the universe

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about his work at Princeton University, Oxford University, and the Max Planck Institute

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters talks about his move to Duke University

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters talks about his book, Singularity Theory and Gravitational Lensing

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Arlie Petters reflects on the finite nature of human knowledge

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Arlie Petters contrasts science education in the United States and in Belize

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters discusses his research on how black holes affect light

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters talks about his desire to see more minorities pursue advanced degrees in mathematics

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters talks about being awarded the Blackwell Tapia Prize

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about achieving the status of a full professor

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters talks about the Petters Research Institute

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters reflects on being inducted into the National Academy of Arts and Sciences Portrait Gallery

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Arlie Petters talks about his work with the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Arlie Petters talks about being featured on 'Nova'

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Arlie Petters talks about honors he has received

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Arlie Petters talks about his research on the optics of black holes

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Arlie Petters describes his work in finance

Tape: 6 Story: 12 - Arlie Petters talks about Arlie Petters Street in Belize

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Arlie Petters discusses his work to strengthen the economy of Brazil using science

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Arlie Petters talks about his family

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Arlie Petters talks about his awards

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Arlie Petters talks about his students

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Arlie Petters discusses the future of gravitational lensing and astronomy

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Arlie Petters shares his concerns about the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Arlie Petters talks about his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Arlie Petters reflects on his life

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Arlie Petters talks about his hobbies and interests

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Arlie Petters talks about his faith

Tape: 7 Story: 11 - Arlie Petters talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 12 - Arlie Petters describes his photos







Arlie Petters talks about his decision to become a scientist
Arlie Petters talks about the Petters Research Institute
Okay, all right so, okay now so what pushed you over the edge into science instead of art, or did you still kind of think well I could do both, be both?$$Well I would say the, the roots of that go back to Belize and this high school teacher that really brought the different fields together. I'd began noticing that it's also an artistic dimension to mathematics. That the way these equations balance, there's a beauty and the feelings I began having from looking deeper into mathematics as well as some of the ideas, you know I started learning about Newton's theory of gravity, then I heard the name Einstein and all of these things that nature has a sort of mathematical structure that was beautiful. And so the feelings that gave me were similar to feelings I was getting when I did art and even feelings I got when I listened to music. I used to love ABBA, right in those days as a kid. And of course you know you also have the, the--we call it macovi music that would come from Al Green, you know and all of these singers, artists, you know and these guys of that, of that time. But for me it was the feeling I got if I listened to an Otis Redding song, or the feeling I got from doing art, or the feeling now, the new part that you get from looking at all mathematical equations balance. There was not an arbitrariness. So my mother made a remark that I think was defining. She said you know you could be an artist if you want, it's your choice, but you probably will have a hard time making a living doing that. And I had witnessed enough of these artists trying to sell their work during the summers in New York. I said but if you go into science you could make a good living and you could still do art on the side. Given that I had this--the same feelings I was getting from art I was getting in mathematics and my physics classes, I didn't feel like I was giving up something totally. So it was a natural flow that the passion can continue, right, in the hard sciences and mathematics. And I think that was what really nailed it for me.$$And that's something I haven't experienced in life yet. I, I used to do art but, but failed before math. I've heard mathematicians describe equations as elegant.$$Yes that's right. There's an aesthetic balance to it. And you'll find that the way it flows, it's like you're looking at a masterpiece. And that I think was what was able to fuel my passion for the subject.$$Okay, okay. Our friend Matthew Hickey always says that math is the language of physics.$$Yes, that's right, exactly. And the thing that I would say, you know as I got more mature intellectually, the profound mysteries, why is it that nature at its core, at least how human beings describe nature, that you need mathematics. That is a great mystery, right. That these underlying equations governing how the physical world works and they're beautiful. Yeah.$And in 2005, that's when you actually found the Petters Research Institute in Belize.$$In Belize, that's right.$$And were you, did you propose the idea to the Belizean's government or did they--did someone in Belize propose the idea to you, or--$$Well I'll tell you how the, the origin of this effort. I was involved in a worldwide effort in Africa to set up a new university in Africa. The motivation was what can one really do to help turn around [unclear] in Africa. We know that all kinds of efforts have been going on, billions of dollars spent. And so the idea was to instead try and use science and technology as a tool to address poverty alleviation. So we were involved in this and I'm looking at the, you know, phenomenal ideas of things that would to me empower communities to really raise standard of living and for people to take ownership of their country and help with building the kind of technological infrastructure you need for this new century. And said I need to take this concept to Belize, right I was involved in all the blueprints, so this intellectual blueprint of setting this thing up. And I saw that aspects of it Belize can surely benefit from. And so that was really the seed that was involved with the Institute, and then of course the government was very happy because we are politically neutral and I have had excellent support from them ever since.$$Okay there's a picture here, it's a beautiful building.$$Yeah, yah.$$And what, what, what are the--what kind of programs do you all run and how many children are involved?$$So the way we do it is we think of the Institute as a catalyst that would drive science and technology, STEM [Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics] fields, really, innovation, but we want to tie it to national development in very practical ways because science in the U.S. is not particularly--you can't just assume it's relevant in Belize, right. You don't want to do nuclear physics in Belize you know. So we try to touch on issues in science and technology that--I'll give you an example that are really needed in the country. We partnered with the Ministry of Defense in Belize and had a--offered a summer program that would teach young people how to assemble computers, how to repair them. Now this is something that if your computer ever breaks down in Belize, good luck with finding help for it. But we thought that this is simple enough that--we even had some elementary school kids involved. But surely teach it at the high school level. And so we partnered with the military. We were able to have everyone over at the base. I got a colleague from Duke [Duke University] who went down and taught the course and we got donations and they assembled all the computers. And at the end of the program, plugged it in and it booted up, Windows came up, and we donated them to needy schools. So what we try to--that's an example of a skill set. To me the repair and maintenance of computers is like you needing a plumber and electrician. That's basic for a modern economy. And Belize, you know it's an area where they had it to me primarily in a cottage industry form. And the Institute acts as a catalyst to try and systemize this sort of thing in the country. So we look at these kind of basic building blocks for an economy, go in there, run a program that would stimulate it and then you have a bigger organization come in and sustain it, right. So that, that's the way we act.