Nigel D Goldenfeld

Swanlund Professor of Physics


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 2020PHYS 504
Spring 2019PHYS 504
Spring 2017PHYS 563
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

  • Research
  • COVID-19

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have developed a new mathematical model for predicting how COVID-19 spreads. This model not only accounts for individuals’ varying biological susceptibility to infection but also their levels of social activity, which naturally change over time. Using their model, the team showed that a temporary state of collective immunity—what they coined “transient collective immunity”—emerged during early, fast-paced stages of the epidemic. However, subsequent “waves,” or surges in the number of cases, continued to appear because of changing social behaviors. Their results are published in the April 8, 2021 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Research

Bees and humans are about as different organisms as one can imagine. Yet despite their many differences, surprising similarities in the ways that they interact socially have begun to be recognized in the last few years. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, building on their earlier studies, have experimentally measured the social networks of honey bees and how they develop over time. They discovered that there are detailed similarities with the social networks of humans and that these similarities are completely explained by new theoretical modeling, which adapts the tools of statistical physics for biology. The theory, confirmed in experiments, implies that there are individual differences between honey bees, just as there are between humans.

  • In the Media
  • Research

A new model by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professors Nigel Goldenfeld and Sergei Maslov helps clarify the limits of pandemic predictions, which are notoriously difficult for the near future and impossible for longer timescales.

  • Research
In biology, phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary history and diversification of species – the “family tree” of Life. Phylogenetic trees not only describe the evolution of a group of organisms but can also be constructed from the organisms within a particular environment or ecosystem, such as the human microbiome. In this way, they can describe how this ecosystem evolved and what its functional capabilities might be.

Now, researchers at Illinois have presented a new analysis of the patterns generated by phylogenetic trees, suggesting that they reflect previously hypothesized connections between evolution and ecology. The study was led by Swanlund Professor of Physics Nigel Goldenfeld (BCXT leader/GNDP), with team members graduate student Chi Xue and former undergraduate student Zhiru Liu, now at Stanford University. Their findings were published in a recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, titled “Scale-invariant topology and bursty branching of evolutionary trees emerge from niche construction.”