The renamed Anthony J. Leggett Institute for Condensed Matter Theory honors a Physics tradition shaped by Leggett himself

10/31/2023 3:57:39 PM

Aaron Seidlitz

On Saturday, Nov. 4, the Physics department at The Grainger College of Engineering will introduce the Anthony J. Leggett Institute for Condensed Matter Theory in a celebration featuring the 2003 Nobel Prize Award winner and current John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair Emeritus in Physics.

As part of this occasion, the upcoming workshop, “New Horizons in Condensed Matter Physics,” will be held from November 3-5.

Leggett, who also currently serves as chief scientist for the Institute, will also introduce the Anthony Leggett Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“Students and faculty alike greatly admire Tony as brilliant scientist, outstanding citizen, and a generous mentor, colleague, and friend,” said Physics Department Head Matthias Grosse Perdekamp. “The Anthony Leggett Institute will continue the rigorous pursuit of scientific excellence in an open and collegial environment – the Illinois Physics tradition that Tony has shaped and made so successful.”

Leggett, a latecomer to science, initially focused his secondary education on the classics, and he earned a bachelor's degree in literae humaniores from Balliol College, University of Oxford. He considered an academic career in philosophy, but he was ultimately drawn to physics for the possibility of “being wrong for interesting and nontrivial reasons.”

So, he enrolled in Merton College, Oxford to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in physics. He went on to earn a physics doctorate, studying problems related to liquid helium for his dissertation. After holding postdoctoral appointments at Illinois, Kyoto University, Harvard University, and Oxford, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Sussex.

Tony Leggett standing next to his hand-drawn illustration of the Schroedinger thought experiment (notice the cat and gun).

It was there that Tony performed his Nobel Prize-winning research from 1972 to 1973, identifying the microscopic mechanism underlying superfluidity in helium-3 shortly after the phenomenon was discovered. He recognized that it was fundamentally different from the forms of superfluidity observed to that point and used theoretical techniques previously developed for superconductivity. Both superfluidity and superconductivity are now recognized as instances of a broader low-temperature phenomenon called “fermionic pairing condensation.”

In 1983, Illinois Physics offered Tony the newly endowed MacArthur Chair, and he relocated.

“How fitting that on this momentous occasion, we come together to celebrate the seminal achievements of Anthony J. Leggett,” said Rashid Bashir, Dean of The Grainger College of Engineering. “Tony, as he is known to friends and colleagues, is a world leader in the theory of low-temperature physics. His work has shaped our theoretical understanding of the properties of normal and superfluid helium liquids and other strongly coupled superfluids. His research has opened new directions of inquiry in the quantum physics of macroscopic dissipative systems and the use of condensed systems to test the foundations of quantum mechanics.”

John Bardeen and Anthony J. Leggett, ca. 1982
John Bardeen and Anthony J. Leggett, ca. 1982

The Physics Department has been a leader in condensed matter research for almost seven decades, attracting the best students and researchers in the field. Two-time Nobel laureate John Bardeen, National Medal of Science recipient Charles Slichter, and Nobel Prize winner Leggett lead the list of illustrious scientists who have served on the department's faculty, and some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of condensed matter physics, such as development of the BCS theory of superconductivity and Slichter's work on nuclear magnetic resonance, happened here.

By honoring Leggett’s contributions, we hope to inspire current and future scientists to continue this legacy of excellence.