$10 million gift to enhance faculty support in Physical Sciences Division

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

A $10 million donation from futures trader and University of Chicago alumnus William Eckhardt, SM’70, will enable the Physical Sciences Division to respond rapidly and with flexibility to scholarly opportunities and challenges as they arise.

The donation will add to the division’s discretionary funds, which are intended to address priorities as needed, including the recruitment and retention of prominent scholars.

“William Eckhardt has been a champion of scientific research, and an essential supporter of the University’s efforts to bring innovative scholars to our campus and help them do their best work,” said University President Robert J. Zimmer. “We are very grateful for this important gift.”

Eckhardt said that one inspiration for his gift was his understanding that most scientific advances depend on an interplay between theoretical and applied science.

“Theoretical science is one of the glories of scholarship at the University of Chicago, and for me, one of the gratifying aspects of giving to the physical sciences is to be able to support that endeavor. They take theory seriously,” he said.

The gift should benefit the division’s faculty in many ways in the coming years, said Robert Fefferman, dean of Physical Sciences.

“William Eckhardt has made an historic commitment that will change the future of our division,” said Fefferman. “What makes this gift so powerful is the flexibility that I or any dean in Physical Sciences will have in its use. To have a gift of this size directed to discretionary funds is quite rare, and it takes a very special appreciation and understanding of science to do that.”

Eckhardt’s appreciation for science extends to his hobbies, which include the study of quantum mechanics and the philosophy of time, Fefferman noted. “These are not hobbies that most people have. He has a firm technical grasp of science and mathematics that’s rather astounding.”

Eckhardt had previously donated $20 million to the division, which prompted the University to name the William Eckhardt Research Center in his honor.

A mixture of theoreticians and experimentalists will make their home in the Eckhardt Center, which will be under construction from late 2011 to late 2014. Moving into the Eckhardt Center will be the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, the theoretical physics group of the Enrico Fermi Institute, part of the James Franck Institute and the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering.

“We want very much to attract not just excellent faculty members, but faculty members who will change the history of science, and we’ve done it. We’ve had historic-level scientists and mathematicians come here, and this latest gift will allow us to continue that effort,” Fefferman said.

These scientists and mathematicians include a long list of Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry and of Fields medalists, recipients of the highest honor in mathematics. Two recent examples are Yoichiro Nambu and Ngô Bao Châu. Nambu, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Physics, shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics, while Ngô, the Francis and Rose Yuen Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics, accepted an appointment at UChicago just months before receiving the Fields Medal last year.

Eckhardt’s gift will help the Physical Sciences Division move quickly to recruit or retain such talent as the situations arise. Many scientists require precision equipment to conduct their research, and start-up funds to equip their laboratories have increased markedly in recent years. The cost of keeping top-performing, established scientists sought after by other institutions is rising as well.

“Here, with Mr. Eckhardt’s gift, we have the ability to draw on resources to respond to the situation,” Fefferman said.