Nigel D Goldenfeld



Nigel D Goldenfeld

Primary Research Area

  • Condensed Matter Physics
3113 Engineering Sciences Building


Nigel Goldenfeld holds a Center for Advanced Study Professorship and a Swanlund Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with appointments in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Genomic Biology. He is a member of the Condensed Matter Theory group in the Department of Physics, and leads the Biocomplexity Theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. He directs the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology, at UIUC. Nigel received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1982, and for the years 1982-1985 was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara.

Since 1985 he has been on the faculty at the University of Illinois, with sabbatical positions at Stanford University and the University of Cambridge. Nigel's research explores how patterns evolve in time; examples include the growth of snowflakes, the microstructures of materials, the flow of fluids, the dynamics of geological formations, and even the spatial structure of ecosystems. Nigel's interests in emergent and collective phenomena extend from condensed matter physics, where he has contributed to the modern understanding of high temperature superconductors, to biology, where his current work focuses on evolution and microbial ecology.

Strongly committed to teaching, Nigel is well-known in the physics community for authoring one of the standard graduate textbooks in statistical mechanics, and is widely regarded as one of the most popular graduate-level lecturers in the Department of Physics. In 1996, Nigel took an entrepreneurial leave-of-absence to found NumeriX, the award-winning company that specializes in high-performance software for the derivatives marketplace. Amongst his awards, Nigel has been an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, a University Scholar of the University of Illinois, a recipient of the Xerox Award for Research, and a recipient of the A. Nordsieck Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching. He is a member of the Editorial Boards of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the International Journal of Theoretical and Applied Finance and Communications in Applied Mathematics and Computational Science. Nigel is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.


  • University Scholar (1994-1997)
  • Nordsieck Award for Excellence in Teaching (May 2002)
  • Elected Fellow, Institute of Physics (May 2011)
  • Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences (May 2010)
  • Elected Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (May 2010)
  • Swanlund Endowed Professor, UIUC. Aug 2008 - present
  • Fellow of the American Physical Society (1995)
  • Sloan Foundation Fellowship (1987-1991)
  • Junior Xerox Award for Faculty Research (1991)
  • Beckman Fellow, Center for Advanced Study-University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Fall, 1988)

Semesters Ranked Excellent Teacher by Students

Spring 2015PHYS 504
Spring 2012PHYS 563
Spring 2011PHYS 504
Fall 2010PHYS 569
Spring 2010PHYS 563
Fall 2009PHYS 569
Spring 2009PHYS 504
Spring 2008PHYS 563
Fall 2007PHYS 569
Spring 2007PHYS 504
Fall 2006PHYS 569
Spring 2006PHYS 569
Fall 2005PHYS 563
Spring 2005PHYS 504
Spring 2004PHYS 498
Fall 2002PHYS 462
Spring 2001PHYS 498
Fall 2000PHYS 462
Spring 2000PHYS 464

Selected Articles in Journals

Related news

  • Accolades

Professor Nigel Goldenfeld is the recipient of the 2017 Tau Beta Pi Daniel C. Drucker Eminent Faculty Award, conferred on faculty members who have received national or international acclaim for contributions to their fields through exemplary research and impactful teaching.

Asst. Professor Gregory MacDougall is a recipient of the 2017 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research. This award is presented annually to recognize the best research to emerge from the U. of I. College of Engineering’s 15 academic units.

  • 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.

  • Research
  • Biological Physics

“Jumping genes” are ubiquitous. Every domain of life hosts these sequences of DNA that can “jump” from one position to another along a chromosome; in fact, nearly half the human genome is made up of jumping genes. Depending on their specific excision and insertion points, jumping genes can interrupt or trigger gene expression, driving genetic mutation and contributing to cell diversification. Since their discovery in the 1940s, researchers have been able to study the behavior of these jumping genes, generally known as transposons or transposable elements (TE), primarily through indirect methods that infer individual activity from bulk results.  However, such techniques are not sensitive enough to determine precisely how or why the transposons jump, and what factors trigger their activity.

Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have observed jumping gene activity in real time within living cells. The study is the collaborative effort of physics professors Thomas Kuhlman and Nigel Goldenfeld, at the Center for the Physics of Living Cells, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center.

  • Research
  • Condensed Matter Physics

How does transitional turbulence die away? And what controls its lifetime? These questions have perplexed scientists ever since the first experiments were performed in 1883.

Now, physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, graduate student Hong-Yan Shih, and former undergraduate student Tsung-Lin Hsieh at tthe University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a theoretical understanding of this laminar-turbulent transition that explains the lifetime of turbulent flows.

“What my colleagues and I found is a completely unexpected analogy between the transition to turbulent flow and the behavior of an ecosystem on the edge of extinction," Goldenfeld remarks.