Oct. 29, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 3

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    Physicist Nagel receives Buckley

    An effort to bring previously overlooked phenomena into mainstream physics has earned Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel the Oliver Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society.

    In addition to the $5,000 prize, Nagel received a certificate citing him "for his innovative studies of disordered systems ranging from structural glasses to granular materials."

    A perfect crystal of a chemical element or a compound is composed of an ordered arrangement of atoms, but in a disordered system-a glass, for example-the atoms are in disarray. Disordered systems also exist on a larger scale, as with the sand grains in a sand pile.

    "When we talk about disordered systems, we are really thinking about systems in which the presence of disorder plays a crucial role in determining its behavior," said Nagel, the Louis Block Professor in Physical Sciences. "What we are after is to see if, despite the lack of an ordered structure, there are general laws that govern the system's behavior."

    According to Nagel, the Buckley Prize came about largely because of the collaborative nature of Chicago's James Franck Institute. "This has been a group effort with students, postdocs and colleagues," Nagel said.

    In collaboration with Heinrich Jaeger, Associate Professor in Physics, Nagel has studied the behavior of granular materials.

    He has studied the physics of coffee stains with Tom Witten, Professor in Physics, and Todd Dupont, Professor in Computer Science and Mathematics.

    With Thomas Rosenbaum and Susan Coppersmith, both Professors in Physics, Nagel has investigated unusual magnetic phenomena called spinglasses. Discussions with Gene Mazenko, also a Professor in Physics, aided Nagel's work on the characteristics of ordinary glasses.

    Nagel's studies of the properties of liquid drops as they snap off into separate drops likewise was influenced by the research of and conversations with Leo Kadanoff, the John MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and Mathematics.

    Nagel said he was attracted to research in disordered systems, especially in glasses, because they presented deep, scientific problems.

    "All crystals-ordered arrangements of atoms-are the same. All disordered systems are different in their own special ways, to paraphrase Tolstoy," Nagel said.

    "Can you say something universal about these glassy systems that is of general interest, that goes beyond these particular materials that you have in your hand? Over the years, if you look at them closely enough, you begin to see that there are universal behaviors."

    Also motivating Nagel was the desire to draw attention to various phenomena that scientists have regarded as unimportant to physics.

    "Sand piles were not considered part of physics," Nagel said. "We wanted to show that there were wonderful scientific questions in sand piles or granular materials. They look so simple, but they involve some very deep questions.

    "The question of a coffee-drop stain at one level looks totally trivial. At another level, there's real physics that we can dig into and see its consequences," he said.

    Nagel's work was inspired by Tom Witten's research on aggregation phenomena by the appearance of soot particles.

    "You can actually pose wonderful scientific questions around a particle of soot," Nagel said. "When I saw that, I was very taken by it. I wanted to be able to, as much as possible, do that same kind of thing over and over again."

    The Buckley Prize was established in 1953 to recognize and encourage outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics, which is the study of fluids and solids. Previous recipients of the prize include Chicago's Leo Kadanoff (1977); Dean Eastman, Director of the Argonne National Laboratory and Professor in Physics (1980); and Daniel Tsui, a Chicago physics alumnus who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics (1984).

    Endowed by AT&T Bell Laboratories, the Buckley Prize was named for Oliver Buckley, president of Bell Labs from 1940 to 1951.