Anonymous gift of $3.5 million to support Leo Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics

The University of Chicago has received a $3.5 million gift from anonymous donors to support a new intellectual enterprise that will be named the Leo Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics.

Kadanoff is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics and Mathematics and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.

A major goal of the center is to bring together physicists who ordinarily work in a specialty such as particle physics, relativity theory or condensed matter theory, and encourage them to work on problems of interest in all of those areas. “The generosity of our anonymous philanthropists provides the support we need to significantly increase the activity level of our new center for theoretical physics,” said Robert Fefferman, dean of the University’s Physical Sciences Division. “In accordance with the wishes of our generous donors, we now formally name the center in honor of our eminent colleague Leo Kadanoff. His stellar record of scholarship in theoretical physics provides us with great pride and inspiration, which will serve us well as we pursue the work of the center in the years to come.”

Kadanoff’s work in the theory of phase transitions in statistical physics, for example, led to a better understanding of the conversion of water to ice or water to water vapor. But the techniques he developed to do this also laid the foundations for the modern understanding of quantum field theory, which helps explain the behavior of subatomic particles. “That sort of cross-fertilization is the kind of activity that we would like to support and encourage through this center,” said Emil Martinec, Professor of Physics and Director of the Enrico Fermi Institute.

Kadanoff already was a leading figure in all of theoretical physics when he joined the UChicago faculty in 1978. “Leo was one of the founders of our modern understanding of the deep relation between statistical physics and quantum field theory. Then he went on to do outstanding work in the areas of chaos theory and the onset of turbulence,” said Martinec.

Experimental constraints on theory

Approximately 10 physics faculty members likely will affiliate with the center, including both theorists and experimentalists. Prominent among them is newly appointed University Professor of Physics, Dam Thanh Son. “The whole idea for this initiative really came from Woowon Kang, who is an experimentalist,” said Jeffrey Harvey, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.” The work that he does and the work that other people do in the department here certainly informs and constrains a lot of the theory that we’re hoping to do.”

Kang, a professor in physics, proposed an initiative that focused on condensed matter theory, but with considerable overlap into particle theory and recent developments that also include string theory, relativity theory and experimental condensed matter physics.

Such connections between different areas of physics have served as the emphasis of an advanced undergraduate course that Harvey co-teaches with Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.

Harvey noted that Nobel laureate Yoichiro Nambu, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at UChicago, was instrumental in connecting the process that endows mass to elementary particles and the physics of superconductivity, the transmission of electric current without any loss of flow. Last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson has now verified this connection, Harvey said.

“Many ideas in particle theory and condensed matter physics have fed into each other, from the Higgs mechanism to something called chiral symmetry breaking, which is another mass-giving mechanism,” Harvey explained. The Kadanoff Center offers a destination and an environment to nurture such connections.