Physical sciences faculty members collect multiple honors

Six faculty members in the University of Chicago Physical Sciences Division recently have received noteworthy professional honors from the American Chemical Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Edmond Hustinx Foundation, the Optical Society of America, the Simons Foundation, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The faculty members and their awards are as follows.

László Babai, the George and Elizabeth Yovovich Professor of Computer Science, has received the 2015 Donald E. Knuth Prize from the Association for Computing Machinery. The prize is awarded every year and a half for major research accomplishments and contributions to the foundations of computer science over an extended time period.

Babai was cited for his fundamental contributions to theoretical computer science, including algorithm design and complexity theory. “The impact of Babai’s conceptual innovations and pioneering work, especially in the use of group theory and randomness, is felt across the discipline well beyond areas in which he has worked,” the Knuth Prize citation said. “His multiple visionary contributions have transformed the landscape of the theory of computing.”

The citation highlighted, among other contributions, Babai’s co-introduction of the concept of “interactive proofs.” Combining interaction and randomness, Babai pioneered a new understanding of the millennia-old concept of mathematical proof. “This notion helped usher in a new era in combinatorial optimization,” the citation noted.

Norbert Scherer, professor of chemistry, was among 76 members of the Optical Society of America who were elected as 2015 fellows of the organization for their significant contributions to the advancement of optics and photonics. The OSA cited Scherer “For discovery of plasmonic optical trapping of noble-metal nanoparticles, for development of methods for two- and three-dimensional optical trapping of anisotropic nanomaterials and for demonstrating ‘optical binding’ in the Rayleigh regime.”

Scherer also has received the 2015 Peter Debye Prize from the Edmond Hustinx Foundation in recognition of his exception contributions to advances in chemistry, nanomaterials, optics and spectroscopy.

“As one of the world’s leading cross-disciplinary scientists working at the intersection of chemistry and physics and combining theoretical and experimental research, Professor Scherer was the jury’s choice as the recipient of the award instituted in memory of the Nobel laureate whose work was characterized by a similar approach,” noted an announcement issued by the Hustinx Foundation.

Scherer also received a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Defense. Scherer received one of 10 such fellowships awarded last year. Scherer’s project involves the creation of “optical matter,” materials that are held together by light, without the benefit of chemical bonding forces. His project includes the creation of optical meta-materials, materials that have properties not found in nature, and their characterization using novel forms of light also not found in nature.

Greg Engel, professor of chemistry, also received a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Defense, another one of 10 such fellowships awarded last year. Engel is working to transcribe quantum information using excited state dynamics to sort the orbital angular momentum of incident photons. Using this so-called “Twisted Light” Engel hopes to enable new technologies for quantum communications as well as new probes of excited-state dynamics in complex material systems.

Panagiotis Souganidis, the Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Mathematics, is one of 31 researchers named to the 2015 class of fellows by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Each year, SIAM designates fellows of the society based on their outstanding contributions to applied mathematics and computational science.

Souganidis was recognized for his contributions to the theory of numerical solutions of both deterministic and stochastic partial differential equations and their applications. His areas of research include applied mathematics, analysis, ecology and evolution, stochastic analysis, partial differential equations, and numerical analysis.

Andrei Tokmakoff, the Henry G. Gale Distinguished Service Professor of Chemistry, will receive the 2016 Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology next March from the American Chemical Society. The award recognizes original and outstanding contributions to fundamental discoveries or inventions in ultrafast science and technology in physics and chemistry.

Tokmakoff’s spectroscopic research has advanced the understanding of some key properties of water and the complex, critical role it plays in biological systems. His laboratory generates the world’s shortest infrared light pulses with ultrafast vibrational spectroscopy to probe molecular bonds.

For the Zewail Award, Tokmakoff is being cited “For his contributions to the development of coherent two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy and its application to equilibrium and non-equilibrium molecular dynamics.” This work is directed at developing the technology to watch chemical reactions in water and real-time changes in protein conformation (structural arrangement).

Paul Wiegmann, Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor of Physics, is one of 14 scientists named as 2015 Simons Fellows in Theoretical Physics by the Simons Foundation. The fellowship will provide Wiegmann a research leave from classroom teaching and administrative obligations for an academic year.

Wiegmann is researching the effects of topology and geometry on condensed matter physics (the physics of quantum liquids and solids). In particular he is interested in quantum fluids consisting of particles, which exhibit topological characteristics. In such liquids, topological characterization determines a global behavior that arises from each particle that interferes with all the others individually.

The case study of such liquids is the remarkable quantum Hall effect, which occurs in nano-electronic devices placed in strong magnetic fields. The topological characterization of the electronic liquid yields to quantization of kinetic coefficients, which have been measured with an unmatched precision.