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Three Theoretical Physicists Join the Initiative for the Theoretical Sciences (ITS)

Three top theoretical physicists will join the Graduate Center in Fall 2013, two as visiting professors and one as full-time member of the GC’s central faculty in physics.

Vijay Balasubramanian, currently Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Penn Neuroscience Program, will be joining the GC as Presidential Professor of Physics. Since his undergraduate days at MIT, Balasubramanian has made significant contributions to a remarkably broad range of theoretical questions, from string theory to neuroscience. In the theory of quantum fields and strings, he was in the first wave of theorists to explore the conjectured connections between gauge theories and gravity in different spatial dimensions, and his most recent work addresses questions about how quantum systems come to thermal equilibrium as well as the relations among effective descriptions on different scales of space and time. In the neural and cognitive sciences, he wrote groundbreaking papers on geometrical and statistical mechanics approaches to learning theory, and went on to engage with detailed neurophysiological data to test the idea that retinal coding of visual signals into spikes is efficient, transmitting the maximum possible information at fixed metabolic cost. His current work touches on problems ranging from the neural representation of place to the processing of olfactory signals. As passionate about teaching as he is about research, he has been recognized with the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching at Penn.

Andrea Cavagna and Irene Giardina, a husband and wife research team, will be in residence at the GC for the 2013–14 academic year as visiting professors. They both serve on the physics faculty at Sapienza University, Rome, and are members of the Institute for Complex Systems, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council), Rome. In early work they obtained, individually and in collaboration, profound results about the structure of the “landscape” in which atoms are moving as they make the transition between liquid and glass, and showed how methods grounded in the field theories for interactions among elementary particles can be used to count the ways in which the atomic degrees of freedom in these more complex materials can escape from one locally stable state to another. Cavagna, Giardina, and their collaborators were among the first to recognize the possibility of using mathematical tools from the theory of glasses to analyze game theoretic scenarios of relevance to economic behavior, as well as connecting more directly to models of relevance to financial markets. Roughly ten years ago they turned to the analysis of collective behavior in animal groups, trying to test explicitly whether the physicists’ intuition about emergent phenomena can help us understand, quantitatively, the beautiful patterns in a flock of birds, a school of fish, or a swarm of insects. They developed the computational tools needed to analyze stereoscopic movies of flocking events, reconstructing the trajectories taken by each individual in a large flock. Further, they brought the language of statistical physics to bear on the analysis of the data, characterizing the ordering of flocks in the same way that we characterize the ordering in fluids and magnets. This work has brought the study of collective animal behavior to a new level, connecting qualitative phenomena to deep, quantitative theories. In consultation with the executive officers of the Ph.D. Program in Physics and the Ph.D. Program in Biology, each will teach one seminar course per semester and participate in the ITS research activities. Their work will connect in interesting ways to Graduate Center efforts in biology, computer science, physics, and applied mathematics.

The director of ITS is William Bialek, GC visiting presidential professor of physics and John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics, Princeton University. Associated with ITS are eight members of the CUNY college-based faculty who hold appointments in Graduate Center doctoral programs: Lev Deych (Queens), a member of the doctoral faculty in physics; Seogjoo Jang (Queens), a member of the doctoral faculty in chemistry and physics; Marcello Lucia (CSI), a member of the doctoral faculty in mathematics and physics; Vadim Oganesyan (CSI), a member of the doctoral faculty in physics; Andrew Poje (CSI), a member of the doctoral faculty in biology and physics; Tobias Schaefer (CSI), a member of the doctoral faculty in physics; and Jesenko Vukadinovic (CSI), a member of the doctoral faculty in mathematics and physics.

Submitted on: JUN 27, 2013

Category: Physics, General GC News, New Appointments to the GC