Princeton scientists win major physics prizes

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
Oct. 11, 2022

The American Physical Society announced today that Princeton University researchers have won several of the society's major awards: Pablo Debenedetti won the Aneesur Rahman Prize for Computational Physics, Ali Yazdani won the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize, Frank Calaprice won the Hans A. Bethe Prize, Nathalie de Leon won the Rolf Landauer and Charles H. Bennett Award in Quantum Computing, and Pierre-Thomas Brun won the Early Career Award for Soft Matter Research. The laureates will receive their awards and deliver lectures at a future APS meeting.

Pablo Debenedetti

Debenedetti, Princeton University’s dean for research, won the Aneesur Rahman Prize for Computational Physics, which recognizes outstanding achievement in computational physics research. Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering who has been at Princeton since 1985, will receive the award “for seminal contributions to the science of supercooled liquids and glasses, water, and aqueous solutions, through ground-breaking simulations.”

Debenedetti’s research uses theoretical and computational tools to study a range of questions, such as how ice forms in the atmosphere, how non-crystalline solids such as glass form by rapid cooling of a liquid, how proteins function under extreme conditions, and how water behaves when confined by water-repellent surfaces. His team’s simulations of supercooled water revealed the existence of two distinct forms of liquid water, a finding that helps explain many of water’s anomalies. Most recently, he and colleagues published a study that applied computational chemistry, machine learning, and advanced sampling methods to the challenge of modeling the initial steps of exactly how water freezes into ice. His work has applications in areas ranging from the preservation of pharmaceutical compounds to water desalination and climate modeling.

Find out more on the website of the Office of the Dean for Research.

Ali Yazdani

Yazdani, Class of 1909 Professor of Physics and director of the Princeton Center for Complex Materials, has been awarded the 2023 APS Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize, which recognizes “innovative applications of scanning tunneling microscopy and spectroscopy to complex quantum states of matter.” 

Over his nearly two decades at Princeton — he came in 2005 — Yazdani and his research team have been working on developing higher resolution instrumentation and techniques to understand the nature of many different quantum materials. Yazdani was the first to visualize directly the signature of Majorana zero modes, an exotic state of matter predicted by quantum mechanics, with a scanning tunneling microscope. Unlike a regular microscope, a scanning tunneling microscope is not looked through; instead, it has a sharp metallic tip that is brought near to the surface of the material being studied. Using a quantum mechanical process, the microscope can probe the material’s wave function, a mathematical description of its quantum state.

Find out more on the physics website.

Frank Calaprice

Calaprice, an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, won the Hans A. Bethe Prize “for pioneering work on large-scale ultra-low-background detectors, specifically Borexino, measuring the complete spectroscopy of solar neutrinos, culminating in observation of CNO neutrinos, thus experimentally proving operation of all the nuclear energy driving reactions of stellar evolution.” 

Calaprice, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1970, spent decades at the helm of the Borexino solar neutrino experiment at Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso. Borexino, a hyper-sensitive instrument deep underground in Italy, was built with an onion-like structure to create layers of protection around a radioactively pure core that successfully detected the smallest known particles, neutrinos, which are produced by the sun’s fusion. 

Find out more on the physics website.

Nathalie de Leon

De Leon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, won the Rolf Landauer and Charles H. Bennett Award in Quantum Computing for her contributions to experimental quantum information science, especially in “materials discovery and enhancement.” De Leon has pioneered an effort to use diamonds as platforms for quantum technologies. While the cut stones of the jewelry world are typically prized for their beauty, de Leon has shown how to manufacture artificial diamonds with precisely controlled imperfections, sometimes called color centers, that enable researchers to manipulate individual electrons. It’s one of the only quantum information platforms that works at room temperature, rather than the near-absolute zero temperatures of other systems.

Since her 2016 arrival at Princeton, de Leon identified a new color center in diamond that combined long spin coherence times (a key factor for qubit memory) with excellent optical properties, an outstanding problem in the field; she later pointed the way toward using light to control these qubits. She also uses nitrogen-based diamond color centers for nanoscale sensing, a platform with the potential to reveal unprecedented detail in proteins, DNA and other biomolecules. In other research, she and colleagues found that using the metal tantalum in a key part of a circuit produced a threefold extension in the lifetime of its information — the most significant improvement to such a device in nearly a decade.

Find out more on the electrical and computer engineering website.

Pierre-Thomas Brun

Brun, an expert in soft-matter engineering and an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, won the Early Career Award for Soft Matter Research for “creative and groundbreaking contributions to make soft functional materials using mechanical and hydrodynamic instabilities, elasticity and flow, from bubble casting for soft robotics to pendant drops coated on the underside of a substrate.”

Brun, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2016, often draws inspiration from patterns found in nature to design new ways to fabricate soft materials. For example, his team has used “bubble casting,” a new way to make soft robots by injecting bubbles into a liquid polymer, allowing the polymer to cure, and then using air to move and bend the resulting soft structure; grown hair-like spindles by spinning a liquid elastic on a disc, not unlike the way sugar is spun into cotton candy, with applications for assembling complex materials; and used capillary action and other principles of fluid flow to herd polymers into printing pixelated sheets of curable elastic polymers that can’t be printed with conventional 3D printers. 

Find out more on the chemical and biological engineering website.