National physics society presents two professors with prizes

The American Physical Society honored two Yale physicists with prestigious prizes this year: one who has “taught it all” and one who built the “world’s fastest counter of the smallest beans.”

This month, the APS awarded the $10,000 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize to physics professor Ramamurti Shankar and the $5,000 Joseph F. Keithley Award for Advances in Measurement Science to applied physics and physics professor Robert Schoelkopf.

The Lilienfeld Prize — an award given “for outstanding contributions to physics by a single individual who also has exceptional skills in lecturing to diverse audiences,” according to the APS Web site — was awarded to Shankar, for his research in finding techniques to solve problems of matter physics and quantum mechanics. Shankar currently teaches the physics class “Advanced Classical Physics: From Newton to Einstein I” for advanced physics majors.

Meanwhile, Schoelkopf won the Keithley Award — for “outstanding advances in measurement science or products that impact the physics community by providing better measurements,” according to the Web site — because of his research in quantum mechanics and “mesoscopics,” the study of how quantum effects and the motion of individual electrons affect the behavior of small electronic devices, he said.

“It’s rare that a single university is home to two recipients of prestigious honors … particularly in the same year,” APS president Arthur Bienenstock said in a statement issued by Yale last week. “Achievements such as theirs are vital in keeping Yale at the forefront of physics research and education.”

Shankar said he was surprised to have received the honor because he knew “about the award and what it’s for” in the scientific community, and did not think his research would garner him such an honor. He said he does not know how he will spend his hefty money award.

He added that as part of his receipt of the award, he will give a lecture two other colleges — APS mandates that at least one must not have a graduate studies program — and at the March 2009’s annual APS meeting.

There will be a March and April meeting, he said, but he chose to lecture in March, “when I’ll see most of my friends.”

As far as his teaching goes, Shankar said it was to his “greatest surprise” that he would enjoy teaching the PHYS 200, “Fundamentals of Physics,” class so much. He started in fall 2002, replacing a colleague who was not well.

“Because I liked it so much, I did it five times in a row!” he said.

Shankar’s PHYS 200 class has been recorded and is currently available on the Yale Online Courses Web site.

He added: “I’ve taught everything: graduate, undergraduate. I’ve taught freshmen for about four to five years … You name it, I’ve taught it.”

Schoelkopf said he was also “very pleased and surprised” to receive the award.

“I’m flattered and especially knowing about the previous award winners who were people I respect a lot,”he said. “It’s great to be in the same breath or sentence with them.”

Among past recipients of the Keithley Award are H. Kumar Wickramasinghe of IBM Almaden for his “contributions to nanoscale measurement science” and James E. Faller of National Institute of Science & Technology for his “development of sensitive grativational detectors,” according to the APS Web site.

Schoelkopf said the award will cite his invention of the radio-frequency single-electron transistor — a device that makes use of microwaves in order to more precisely determine measurements for position, speed and direction of electrons in various materials — called the “world’s fasted counter of the smallest beans” by University Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin. He adds that he may use his $5,000 to construct a two-bit quantum computer, “an electronic circuit with its components that process information in the quantum domain … actuated by microwave signals.”

Shankar said physics department chair Meg Urry sent letters to the APS nominating the physicists. Urry was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The APS meeting, which starts on March 16, will be held in Pittsburgh, Penn.


  • Yale '07

    Congrats to Dr. Shankar, one of the finest professors I had in any subject. A well-deserved award, for sure.