News: 2018


Dam Thanh Son awarded 2018 ICTP Dirac Medal

August 10, 2018

Dam Thanh Son

For contributions toward understanding novel phases in strongly interacting many-body systems and introducing original cross-disciplinary techniques.

Physicist Dam Thanh Son, University Professor at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the 2018 ICTP Dirac Medal for his contributions to revolutionizing human understanding of how quantum mechanics affects large groups of particles.

Son was awarded the medal with physicists Subir Sachdev of Harvard University and Xiao-Gang Wen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The three winners made independent contributions toward understanding novel phases in strongly interacting many-body systems, according to the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, which awards the Dirac Medal.

“I feel very honored to receive this award alongside two colleagues I deeply respect,” Son said. “The prize is especially valuable to me because ICTP is an institution created to help scientists from the developing world, and I am from Vietnam.”

Son joined the UChicago faculty in 2012 and serves as University Professor in Physics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, James Franck Institute and the College. University Professors are selected for internationally recognized eminence in their fields as well as for their potential for high impact across the University.

Press Release


Mazziotti group develops method to calculate molecular conductivity

June 1, 2018

Mazziotti Group research image

Current-constrained approach significantly improves upon prior methods.

The smaller and smarter that phones and devices become, the greater the need to build smaller circuits. Forward-thinking scientists in the 1970s suggested that circuits could be built using molecules instead of wires, and over the past decades that technology has become reality.

“Current models tend to overpredict conductance, but our theory outperforms traditional models by as much as one to two orders of magnitude,” said Prof. David Mazziotti, Professor of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute, who coauthored the paper, published May 31 in Nature’s Communications Chemistry.

“Almost all of the big problems that people are trying to solve involve working with materials that are difficult to explore with traditional methods,” he said. “If we can better predict the conductivity, we can more effectively design better molecules and materials.”



Three JFI Faculty elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

April 18, 2018

JFI logo

Recognition for Laurie Butler, Heinrich Jaeger, and Andrei Tokmakoff.

Laurie Butler is a Professor of chemistry with the James Frank Institute. She investigates fundamental inter- and intramolecular forces that drive the courses of chemical reactions, integrating our understanding of quantum mechanics into chemistry. Among other applications, her current work has implications for our models of atmospheric and combustion chemistry. She is a fellow of the American Physical Society and a former Alfred P. Sloan Fellow.

Heinrich Jaeger is the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Physics and the James Franck Institute. His laboratory studies the investigation of materials under conditions far from equilibrium, especially to design new classes of smart materials. A focus of Jaeger’s work are granular materials, which are large aggregates of particles in far-from-equilibrium configurations, that exhibit properties intermediate between those of ordinary solids and liquids – which could lead to everything from soft robotic systems that can change shape to new forms of architectural structures that are fully recyclable. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and is currently a fellow of the American Physical Society.

Andrei Tokmakoff is the Henry J. Gale Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry with the James Franck Institute. He studies the chemistry of water, and molecular dynamics of biophysical processes such as protein folding and DNA hybridization. His lab uses advanced spectroscopy to visualize how molecular structure changes with time to study these problems. He was an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow and has received the American Physical Society’s Ernest Plyler Prize, among others.

Dupont, Nagel, and Witten collaborative publication selected as milestone for Physical Review E 25th anniversary celebration

April 17, 2018

JFI logo

Contact line deposits in an evaporating drop.

The year 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Physical Review E. To celebrate the journal’s rich legacy, during the upcoming year we highlight a series of papers that made important contributions to their field. These milestone articles were nominated by members of the Editorial Board of Physical Review E, in collaboration with the journal’s editors. The 25 milestone articles, including an article for each calendar year from 1993 through 2017 and spanning all major subject areas of the journal, will be unveiled in chronological order and will be featured on the journal website.

For the year 2000, the following collaborative work from three groups in the James Franck Institute is featured:

Contact line deposits in an evaporating drop
Robert D. Deegan, Olgica Bakajin, Todd F. Dupont, Greg Huber, Sidney R. Nagel, and Thomas A. Witten
Phys. Rev. E 62, 756 (2000)


In Memoriam: Dean Eastman

April 6, 2018

Dean Eastman

Professor Emeritus of Physics in the James Franck Institute.

Dean Eastman, Director of Argonne from 1996-1998 and Professor Emeritus of Physics in the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago, died on March 4, 2018, at the age of 78. His tenure at Argonne lab saw the Advanced Photon Source begin its operations and the Gammasphere (part of the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System) make its first move from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to Argonne.

After receiving three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eastman had a successful career as a research physicist with IBM, working at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. He became a world-renowned expert on the electronic properties of materials and spectroscopy and vice president of technical strategy and development reengineering, IBM Server Group.

His passion for building and architecture led to his restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois. Eastman self-published “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Coonley House Estate: An Unabridged Documentary,” a book detailing the restoration.

Born in Oxford, Wisconsin, Eastman grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

He is survived by his wife and two brothers.


Simon group builds photon collider

March 27, 2018

Simon Group research image

Study examines how to manipulate photons for quantum engineering.

Quantum systems behave according to the strange laws that govern the smallest particles in the universe, like electrons. Scientists are increasingly interested in exploring new ways to harness the particles’ odd behaviors, like being in two states at once, and then choosing one only when measured.

Jonathan Simon, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Physics and the James Franck Institute, is interested in how walls dividing matter and light begin to break down at this scale. Most electronic systems use electrons as the moving parts, but photons can display quantum properties just as easily as electrons—and photons’ quirks could both offer advantages as technologies and serve as models to understand the more slippery electrons. So his team wants to manipulate and stack photons to build matter out of light.

“Essentially we want to make photon systems into a kind of quantum Legos—blown-up materials that you can more easily study and tease out basic quantum design principles,” said Simon, who is also a fellow of the Institute for Molecular Engineering.



Timothy Berkelbach awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

February 26, 2018

Timothy Berkelbach

Prestigious early-career recognition.

Tim Berkelbach, a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor, is a theoretical chemist who studies the electronic and optical properties of nanoscale materials. His group adapts computational models written for tens of atoms and scales them up to work for sets of hundreds or thousands—which you need to model materials for applications in solar energy, catalysis and manufacturing, chemical sensing and electronics.

“It’s an honor to be selected, especially alongside such an amazing lineup of people who have been recognized as Sloan fellows over the years,” Berkelbach said.


Irvine group uses gyroscopes to find unusual state of matter

January 16, 2018

Irvine Group research image

Amorphous topological insulators constructed from random point sets.

Using a set of gyroscopes linked together, physicists explored the behavior of a material whose structure is arranged randomly, instead of an orderly lattice. They found they could set off one-way ripples around the edges, much like spectators in a sports arena—a “topological wave,” characteristic of a particularly unusual state of matter.

Published Jan. 15 in Nature Physics, the discovery offers new insight into the physics of collective motion and could one day have implications for electronics, optics or other technologies.

The team, led by Assoc. Prof. William Irvine, used gyroscopes—the top-like toys you played with as a kid—as a model system to explore physics. Because gyroscopes move in three dimensions, if you connect them with springs and spin them with motors, you can observe all kinds of things about the rules that govern how objects move together.

“Everything up to this point was engineered. We thought you had to build a particular lattice, and that determines where the wave goes,” said Irvine. “But when we asked what happened if you took away the spatial order, no crystal plane, no clear structure…the answer’s yes. It just works.”


Chin group finds quantum systems work together for change

January 12, 2018

Chin Group research image

Observe particles acting coherently as they undergo phase transitions.

A study published Dec. 18 in Nature Physics by University of Chicago scientists observed how particles behave as the change takes place in minute detail. In addition to shedding light on the fundamental rules that govern the universe, understanding such transitions could help design more useful technologies.

One of the questions was whether, as particles prepare to transition between quantum states, they can act as one coherent group that “knows” the states of the others, or whether different particles only act independently of one another, or incoherently.

Cheng Chin, Professor in the James Franck Institute and Department of Physics, and his team looked at an experimental setup of tens of thousands of atoms cooled down to near absolute zero. As the system crossed a quantum phase transition, they measured its behavior with an extremely sensitive imaging system.

The conventional wisdom was that the atoms should evolve incoherently after the transition--a hallmark of older “classic” rather than quantum models of physics. “In contrast, we found strong evidence for coherent dynamics,” said graduate student Lei Feng, the first author on the study. “In no moment do they become classical particles; they always behave as waves that evolve in synchrony with each other, which should give theorists a new ingredient to include in how they model such systems that are out of equilibrium.”