News

Assistant Professors Verena Martinez Outschoorn and Liang Yang of the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have each been selected for 2017 NSF CAREER Awards. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award of the National Science Foundation is conferred annually in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by integrating outstanding research with excellent education. Receipt of this honor also reflects great promise for a lifetime of leadership within recipients’ respective fields.

Mason says, “there are so few of us, people get the impression that we are like unicorns – either non-existent or magical.” We are far from non-existent, but I find women of color to be quite magical. However, as Jesse Williams says, “Just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

  • Outreach

It’s up to you and your team to save the free world from evil forces plotting its destruction, and you have precisely 60 minutes to do it. You must find out what happened to Professor Schrödenberg, a University of Illinois physicist who disappeared after developing a top-secret quantum computer that can crack any digital-security encryption code in the world.  Unfortunately, the previous groups of special agents assigned to the case disappeared while investigating the very room in which you now find yourself locked up, Schrödenberg’s secret lab.

LabEscape is a new science-themed escape room now open at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, testing the puzzle-solving skills of groups of up to six participants at a time. Escape rooms, a new form of entertainment cropping up in cities across the U.S. and around the globe, provide in-person mystery-adventure experiences that have been compared to living out a video-game or movie script. A team of participants is presented with a storyline and locked into a room with only one hour to find and decipher a sequence of interactive puzzles that will unlock the door and complete the mission. Two escape room businesses are already in operation in the area, C-U Adventures in Time and Space in Urbana and Brainstorm Escapes in Champaign.

 

  • Research
  • AMO/Quantum Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics

Topological insulators, an exciting, relatively new class of materials, are capable of carrying electricity along the edge of the surface, while the bulk of the material acts as an electrical insulator. Practical applications for these materials are still mostly a matter of theory, as scientists probe their microscopic properties to better understand the fundamental physics that govern their peculiar behavior.

Using atomic quantum-simulation, an experimental technique involving finely tuned lasers and ultracold atoms about a billion times colder than room temperature, to replicate the properties of a topological insulator, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has directly observed for the first time the protected boundary state (the topological soliton state) of the topological insulator trans-polyacetylene. The transport properties of this organic polymer are typical of topological insulators and of the Su-Schrieffer-Heeger (SSH) model.

Physics graduate students Eric Meier and Fangzhao Alex An, working with Professor Bryce Gadway, developed a new experimental method, an engineered approach that allows the team to probe quantum transport phenomena.

  • Research
  • Astrophysics/Cosmology

In its search for extrasolar planets, the Kepler space telescope looks for stars whose light flux periodically dims, signaling the passing of an orbiting planet in front of the star. But the timing and duration of diminished light flux episodes Kepler detected coming from KIC 846852, known as Tabby’s star, are a mystery. These dimming events vary in magnitude and don’t occur at regular intervals, making an orbiting planet an unlikely explanation. The source of these unusual dimming events is the subject of intense speculation. Suggestions from astronomers, astrophysicists, and amateur stargazers have ranged from asteroid belts to alien activity.  

Now a team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—physics graduate student Mohammed Sheikh, working with Professors Karin Dahmen and Richard Weaver—proffer an entirely novel solution to the Tabby’s star puzzle. They suggest the luminosity variations may be intrinsic to the star itself.

  • Research
  • Astrophysics/Cosmology

"For decades, astronomers have known that supermassive black holes and the stars in their host galaxies grow together," said co-author Joaquin Vieira of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Exactly why they do this is still a mystery. SPT0346-52 is interesting because we have observed an incredible burst of stars forming, and yet found no evidence for a growing supermassive black hole. We would really like to study this galaxy in greater detail and understand what triggered the star formation and how that affects the growth of the black hole."

  • Alumni News
  • Accolades

Physics Illinois alumnus M. George Craford has been selected for the IEEE Edison Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The medal is awarded annually in recognition of a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering, or the electrical arts. The citation reads, "for a lifetime of pioneering contributions to the development and commercialization of visible LED materials and devices."

Craford is best known for his invention of the first yellow light emitting diode (LED). During his career, he developed and commercialized the technologies yielding the highest-brightness yellow, amber, and red LEDs as well as world-class blue LEDs. 

  • Accolades

Toni Pitts, coordinator of recruiting and special programs at Physics Illinois, has received the Leadership in Diversity Award from The Office of Diversity, Equity and Access at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This award recognizes exceptional dedication to and success in promoting diversity and inclusion via research, hiring practices, courses, programs and events.

  • Research

Nature is full of parasites—organisms that flourish and proliferate at the expense of another species. Surprisingly, these same competing roles of parasite and host can be found in the microscopic molecular world of the cell. A new study by two Illinois researchers has demonstrated that dynamic elements within the human genome interact with each other in a way that strongly resembles the patterns seen in populations of predators and prey.

The findings, published in Physical Review Letters by physicists Chi Xue and Nigel Goldenfeld, (DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.117.208101) are an important step toward understanding the complex ways that genomes change over the lifetime of individual organisms, and how they evolve over generations.

  • In Memoriam

Klaus Schulten, professor of physics and Beckman Institute faculty member for nearly 25 years, passed away after an illness in late October, 2016. In this memorial tribute, Schulten discusses his research and his love of exploring how nature works.

Schulten, who led Beckman’s Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, was a leader in the field of biophysics, conducting seminal work in the area of dynamic computer simulations, illuminating biological processes and structures in ways that weren’t possible before.

Schulten’s goal from his start as an original Beckman researcher was to use mathematics and physics to study the natural world through advanced computation.

Schulten’s group has created simulations that have provided never-before-seen views of such function as the chemical structure of the HIV capsid and the first-ever simulation of an entire life form, the complete satellite tobacco mosaic virus.

  • In the News
  • Condensed Matter Physics

The other half of the Nobel prize, awarded for “topological phase transitions,” also unites topology and physics, but “topology enters in a somewhat different way,” says Eduardo Fradkin, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

Relevant here is the fact that topological properties often cannot be determined locally. An ant sitting on a pastry can’t tell by looking around whether the perch is a bun, bagel, or pretzel.

  • Research

Do sterile neutrinos—hypothetical particles that do not interact with matter except through gravity—really exist? If so, this would solve some of today’s major mysteries in particle physics and cosmology. For two decades, researchers around the globe have sought evidence that would prove or disprove the reality of sterile neutrinos, with inconclusive outcomes.

Now, a new result has all but ruled out the possible existence of a light sterile neutrino in a regime suggested by an earlier experiment. Researchers from two major international collaborations—the Main Injector Neutrinos Oscillation Search (MINOS) at Fermi National Laboratory and the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment in the south of China—joined forces, each contributing years of data that, taken together, paint a nearly complete picture. The joint result published in Physical Review Letters has significantly shrunk the hiding space for a light sterile neutrino.

  • Accolades

University of Illinois Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stuart Shapiro has been selected for the 2017 Hans A. Bethe Prize of the American Physical Society (APS). The Bethe Prize is conferred annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to theory, experiment, or observation in astrophysics, nuclear physics, nuclear astrophysics, or closely related fields.

The citation reads, “For seminal and sustained contributions to understanding physical processes in compact object astrophysics, and advancing numerical relativity.”

  • Accolades

Celia Elliott, Physics Illinois’ director of external affairs and special projects, has received the 2016 SPaRC Career Achievement Award, for her significant and sustained contributions throughout her career to the field of research administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The award was presented by the campus’s Sponsored Programs and Research Compliance group on Friday, September 16, 2016, during the SPaRC Retreat at the I-Hotel in Urbana.
Elliott is widely recognized among the department’s faculty as the pivotal resource for all things pertaining to successful grant writing and administration.

  • Research
  • Condensed Matter Physics

Physics professor Taylor Hughes and mechanical science and engineering professor Gaurav Bahl of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are part of an interdisciplinary team that will study non-reversible sound wave propagation over the next four years, with a range of promising potential applications.

The National Science Foundation has announced a $2-million research award to the team, which includes University of Oregon physics professor Hailin Wang and Duke University electrical and computer engineering professor Steven Cummer. The grant is part of a broader $18-million NSF-funded initiative, the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program, supporting nine teams—a total of 37 researchers at 17 institutions—to pursue fundamental research in the area of new light and acoustic wave propagation, known as NewLAW.