Physics initiative launches with hiring of Dam Thanh Son

As part of an ambitious plan to recruit outstanding theoretical physicists from around the world, the University of Chicago has appointed Dam Thanh Son as University Professor of Physics, effective Sept. 1.

The depth and elegance of Son’s research has demonstrated links between such seemingly unrelated areas of physics as nuclear physics and black holes. His interests also range across atomic, condensed matter and particle physics. A native of Vietnam, Son comes to UChicago from the University of Washington, where he serves as a professor of physics and a senior fellow in the Institute for Nuclear Theory.

University Professors represent the highest scholarly aspirations of the University of Chicago. They are selected from outside institutions because of their internationally recognized eminence and for their potential for broad impact. Son is the 19th person to hold a University Professorship, and the seventh active faculty member holding that title.

“Today we are proud to announce that Prof. Son will join the University of Chicago faculty as University Professor, which includes appointments in our physics department as well as in two of our richly productive interdisciplinary research institutes — the Enrico Fermi Institute and the James Franck Institute,” said Robert Fefferman, dean of UChicago’s Physical Sciences Division. “He will provide tremendous intellectual leadership that will mark the opening of a new era in the University’s storied tradition of physics research.”

In addition to Son’s appointment and the new physics faculty initiative, the University is also launching a Center for Physical Inquiry. The center is designed to become a focal point of activity for theoretical physicists, providing substantial support for shared postdoctoral fellows, students and academic visitors. Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum said the center will serve as a natural structure for bringing the theoretical faculty together under a common umbrella organization, building on the rich tradition of interdisciplinary science represented by the James Franck and Enrico Fermi institutes.

Son said that kind of collaboration was part of the reason he chose to come to UChicago.

“The University of Chicago is a world-renowned institution with a long tradition in physics. I feel extremely honored to be at the same place where Enrico Fermi and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar have worked,” Son said.

“Personally, Chandrasekhar’s famous voyage from India to Europe inspired me as a kid in Vietnam, and Fermi’s insightful lecture notes deeply influenced me as an undergraduate in Moscow. I have had 10 extremely interesting years at the Institute for Nuclear Theory at the University of Washington, and now I am ready for new challenges.”

“Son is one of the top few theoretical physicists of his generation, and of that elite handful of people, he’s probably the broadest in terms of the impact of his research,” said Emil Martinec, professor in physics and director of the Enrico Fermi Institute.

Working Across Disciplines

Son gained international prominence for his application of ideas from string theory to the understanding of nuclear matter under high temperature and high density — conditions generated in the Relativisitic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“Son borrowed ideas that were developed in string theory in trying to explain the physics of black holes, and he realized that those ideas could be used to explain some of the phenomena that were being seen in the Brookhaven accelerator, and that led to some important progress in those areas,” Martinec said.

Son has a rare ability to explore physics as a universal, undivided discipline, noted Paul Wiegmann, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and director of the James Franck Institute.

“Physicists are specialized by education,” Wiegmann said. “Some are educated as condensed-matter physicists, some as high-energy physicists, but outstanding scientists see commonalities between different disciplines.”

Such scientists can jump from one discipline to another in different parts of their careers or even work simultaneously in independent research groups that are tackling different problems with similar methods. Many physicists recognize the effectiveness of this approach, Weigmann said, but “not many people are actually able to jump across different disciplines. Son is one of those people.”

Son’s fluency in the full range of physics problems and the connections between them is unusual, said Edward Blucher, professor and chairman of the physics department.

“The work that Son does has created excitement in many corners of the department,” Blucher said. “We had a clear idea of what we were hoping to accomplish with our physics initiative, and he is the best person to start things off in a very strong way. He has done great work, but we’re excited about having him come here because we anticipate that his best work is still to come.”

Son earned his master’s degree in physics from Moscow State University in 1991, and his doctorate in physics from Moscow’s Institute for Nuclear Research in 1995. He then held postdoctoral appointments at the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Son became a fellow at the RIKEN Brookhaven National Laboratory Research Center in 1999, the same year he joined the Columbia University faculty, where he remained until 2002.

An Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, Son also is a recipient of the Outstanding Junior Investigator Award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Son is the second University Professor appointed this year, and the fourth in the last two years. Kenneth Pomeranz, University Professor of History, joined the faculty July 1. Haun Saussy, University Professor of Comparative Literature, and Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition, joined the faculty in 2011.