March 16, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 12

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    Researcher to explain complex physical systems at Compton Lectures

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman who helped scientists better understand the properties of glass, proteins and other complex physical systems? It’s no joke; it’s the truth, as the University’s Arthur Holly Compton Lecturer will explain in a series of free, public lectures beginning Saturday, March 25.

    The series of 10 lectures, titled “The Power of Analogy in the Study of Complex Systems,” will be held Saturdays at 11 a.m. through June 3 in Room 106 of the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, 5720 S. Ellis Ave. There will be no lecture April 22, the Saturday before Easter.

    Haim Diamant, Research Associate in the University’s James Franck Institute, will deliver the lectures. Diamant received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in physics and mathematics from Tel Aviv University.

    Diamant will review how scientists have achieved a better understanding of the complex physics of fluids and solids by using analogies with simpler or better-known systems. He will describe some surprising similarities and common principles among apparently unrelated systems, such as glasses and proteins and vacuum and biological cell membranes.

    “Suppose you have a traveling salesman who should visit 20 cities scattered around Illinois,” Diamant said. “The question is: what is the shortest route he should take in order to go through all 20 cities?”

    This is just a simple example for the complicated problem of optimization. Similar problems can be found in the physics of glasses and proteins.

    “Glasses are actually fluids that got stuck in a non-optimal, higher-energy state,” Diamant explained. “How long would it take the system to reach its optimal, or lowest-energy state? For glasses, this may take thousands of years.”

    Proteins also sometimes have difficulty reaching their optimal states. When this happens, they do not function well, Diamant said. Proteins trapped in non-optimal energy states contribute to a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, he said.

    Diamant’s talks will be the 51st series of the Arthur Holly Compton Lectures, sponsored each fall and spring by the Enrico Fermi Institute. Compton was a Chicago physicist and a Nobel laureate, best known for demonstrating that light has the characteristics of both a wave and a particle. He also organized the effort to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb and directed the Metallurgical Laboratory at Chicago, where Enrico Fermi and his colleagues produced the first controlled nuclear-chain reaction in 1942.

    The lectures are intended to make science accessible to a general audience and to convey the excitement of new discoveries in the physical sciences. No scientific background is required. Previous topics have ranged from the smallest fundamental particles to the history of the universe.

    All of the lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, call (773) 702-7823 or visit http://ars-www.uchicago.edu/efi/compton_lectures.txt.html.