Physicists are given awards for research

There are striking parallels in the recent professional lives of Yale physics professors Steven Girvin and David DeMille. They won the same teaching award in back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004 and, within a week of one another, they both nabbed prestigious awards given by the American Physical Society.

Girvin received the Oliver E. Buckley prize for his theoretical contributions to condensed matter physics, and DeMille won the Francis M. Pipkin award in recognition of his work in the area of precision measurement and fundamental constants. The awards were announced earlier this month and will be presented at the March and April meetings of the society, respectively.

Girvin was recognized along with physicists James Eisenstein of the California Institute of Technology and Allen MacDonald of the University of Texas, Austin, for their experimental and theoretical research on what Girvin described as electrons moving around in two-dimensional, as opposed to three-dimensional, structures.

The Buckley award — which is given annually and consists of a $10,000 prize — is the most prestigious honor in the field of condensed matter physics, Yale physics professor Douglas Stone said. Stone, who served on the selection committee for the award for several years, noted that a number of Nobel laureates have won the prize in the past.

Girvin said he is thrilled to be joining the ranks of these notable physicists.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” he said. “I had a wonderful collaboration with the other two winners.”

No one at Yale had won the award, which was endowed in 1952, until professor Nicholas Read received it in 2002, Stone said.

“Yale has now won the award twice in four years, which is very impressive,” Stone said.

Girvin said he began his research at Indiana University about 15 years ago and completed it when he came to Yale in 2001. He deals with the theoretical side of the research, interpreting and suggesting experiments rather than actually performing them, he said.

DeMille said his research is more experimental, as it is focused on taking precise measurements of the quantum mechanical energy levels in atoms and molecules. He said these measurements represent an attempt to discover new kinds of particles or forces within the atoms and molecules.

DeMille conducted his experiments in the basement of Sloane Physics Lab with a team of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, he said.

“They do all the real work,” he said. “They’re part of the story as well.”

DeMille is the second Yale recipient of the Pipkin award, which is given every other year and consists of a stipend of approximately $2,000. Physics professor Steven Lamoreaux was the first-ever winner of the award in 1999.

In 2003, Girvin was the first professor to receive Yale’s student-selected Conde award for teaching excellence in physics, applied physics and astronomy. One year later, DeMille became the second to take the prize.

Physics department chair Ramamurti Shankar said these honors demonstrate the multiple talents of the two men.

“They’re good at many things,” Shankar said. “It shows that they are good at conveying to the students what they know because you can be an expert in your field, but if you don’t know how to convey it to people, it does no good.”

Both Girvin and DeMille will be researchers at the new Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering and are part of the reason why Shankar pushed Yale to fund the project, Shankar said.

“These two are at the heart of the nanoscience initiative,” he said. “I think we should do everything possible to give them a climate in which they can continue to do these great things.”

But Shankar said he found it disconcerting that the professors had received the awards during the week he was out of the country.

“I was disturbed that any time I leave town, my faculty start winning prizes,” Shankar quipped.

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