Physics Illinois welcome new faculty member Thomas Faulkner

Siv Schwink

Thomas Faulkner joined the faculty at Physics Illinois during the Spring 2014 term.

Faulkner is a theoretical physicist who works at the intersection of high-energy physics and condensed matter physics. Faulkner applies the quantitative mechanical tools of string theory to persistent problems in theoretical condensed matter physics to yield fresh insights into quantum many body systems.

“High energy and condensed matter each have slightly different languages, but quite often share unifying principals, and I find that very interesting,” comments Faulkner.

The merging of quantum many body systems and string theory has its origin in the so-called holographic duality where stringy and gravitational physics is encoded in a quantum hologram in one less dimension. This duality allows unanswered questions about strongly correlated phenomena to be rewritten within field theory in terms of simple problems in classical gravity.

“This holographic duality provides a new starting point from which to attack problems in field theory,” explains Faulkner. “The approach has certain advantages over weak coupling expansions and numerical work: Weak coupling expansions can easily miss various strongly coupled phenomena, and numerical work can suffer from the dangerous sign problem, which makes the computation impossibly hard with current techniques.”

Faulkner’s recent work in strongly correlated materials applies this holographic duality to the understanding of the normal phase of high-temperature superconductors. In particular his work has yielded insight into the mysterious non-Fermi liquid phase.

This holographic duality may also prove useful to our fundamental understanding of quantum black holes, by shedding light on how gravity and quantum mechanics can live together consistently. Here, Faulkner applies the tools of theoretical condensed matter—specifically, our understanding of geometric entanglement entropy—to string theory, with the goal of understanding how spacetime and gravity emerge from a purely quantum theory. Faulkner describes this paradigm as the most promising approach to quantum gravity.

Faulkner looks forward to collaborating with colleagues and graduate students at Physics Illinois: “I’m excited to be in such a dynamic environment, with the condensed matter and the high energy people here. Being at the intersection of two fields, Urbana is the perfect place to be.”

He also looks forward to beginning teaching in the fall: “I was deeply inspired by several of my teachers as an undergraduate—and in fact, at various stages throughout my career. I have always appreciated good teachers, those who care passionately about their respective subjects. I would hope to teach with that kind of passion and to provide that kind of inspiration to my students here at Illinois,” shares Faulkner.

Faulkner is currently building his research group and is accepting graduate students with a strong interest in fundamental questions relating to strongly correlated phenomena in many-body systems or in fundamental questions in quantum gravity, and the intersection of the two.

Faulkner is a member of the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory at the University of Illinois.

Faulkner received his bachelor’s degree in physics with honors from the University of Melbourne, in Australia, in 2003. He received his doctoral degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, working at the Center for Theoretical Physics under advisers Hong Liu and Krishna Rajagopal.

Prior to joining the faculty at Physics Illinois, Faulkner was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ (2012-2014). Before that, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara (2009-2012).


Recent News

  • Research Funding

The United States Department of Energy awards $2.2 million to the FAIR Framework for Physics-Inspired Artificial Intelligence in High Energy Physics project, spearheaded by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Center for Artificial Intelligence Innovation (CAII) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The primary focus of this project is to advance our understanding of the relationship between data and artificial intelligence (AI) models by exploring relationships among them through the development of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) frameworks. Using High Energy Physics (HEP) as the science driver, this project will develop a FAIR framework to advance our understanding of AI, provide new insights to apply AI techniques, and provide an environment where novel approaches to AI can be explored.

This project is an interdisciplinary, multi-department, and multi-institutional effort led by Eliu Huerta, principal investigator, director of the CAII, senior research scientist at NCSA, and faculty in Physics, Astronomy, Computational Science and Engineering and the Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe at UIUC. Alongside Huerta are co-PIs from Illinois: Zhizhen Zhao, assistant professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Coordinated Science Laboratory; Mark Neubauer, professor of physics, member of Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe, and faculty affiliate in ECE, NCSA, and the CAII; Volodymyr Kindratenko, co-director of the CAII, senior research scientist at NCSA, and faculty at ECE and Computer Science; Daniel S. Katz, assistant director of Scientific Software and Applications at NCSA, faculty in ECE, CS, and School of Information Sciences. In addition, the team is joined by co-PIs Roger Rusack, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota; Philip Harris, assistant professor of physics at MIT; and Javier Duarte, assistant professor in physics at UC San Diego.

  • Research

This year, 31 research teams have been awarded a combined 5.87 million node hours on the Summit supercomputer, the OLCF’s 200 petaflop IBM AC922 system. The research performed through the ALCC program this year will range from the impact of jets on offshore wind farms to the structure and states of quantum materials to the behavior of plasma within fusion reactors—all computationally intensive scientific applications necessitating the power of a large-scale supercomputer like Summit.

  • In Memoriam

Jim was widely viewed as one of the best teachers in the Physics Department. He was frequently listed in the University’s roster of excellent instructors and won awards for his classroom skills. In 2012, he received the Arnold T. Nordsieck Physics Award for Teaching Excellence for his “patient, insightful, and inspiring physics teaching, one problem at a time, that encourages undergraduate students to take their understanding to a new level.”

  • Research

Now a team of theoretical physicists at the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory (ICMT) in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Illinois Physics Professor Philip Phillips, has for the first time exactly solved a representative model of the cuprate problem, the 1992 Hatsugai-Kohmoto (HK) model of a doped Mott insulator.