In ‘Rare’ Honor, Two Yale Physicists Earn Top Prizes From the APS

The American Physical Society (APS) has chosen two Yale physicists to receive two of its prestigious annual awards.

Ramamurti Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics, is the 2009 winner of the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize, “awarded for outstanding contributions to physics by a single individual who also has exceptional skills in lecturing to diverse audiences,” according to APS.

Robert Schoelkopf, a professor of applied physics and physics, has been awarded the 2009 Joseph F. Keithley Award for Advances in Measurement Science, “for outstanding advances in measurement science or products that impact the physics community by providing better measurements.”

“It’s rare that a single university is home to two recipients of prestigious honors like the Keithley Award and the Lilienfeld Prize, particularly in the same year,” says the APS president, Arthur Bienenstock. “Professors Schoel­kopf and Shankar have earned the sort of recognition from their APS peers that places them among the leading physicists of our generation. Achievements such as theirs are vital in keeping Yale at the forefront of physics research and education.”

According to Steven Girvin, Yale’s deputy provost for science and technology and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, “Shankar’s research in condensed matter theory using techniques he brought with him from his former life in particle physics has illuminated many subjects in our field. He’s also a legendary teacher and public speaker who has a knack for humorously and enthusiastically explaining physics to anyone at any level.”

In addition to mentoring his own students, Shankar gives regular lectures for alumni, faculty and graduate ­students at Yale and elsewhere, as well as for high school students, and has participated in an Open Yale course, whereby his entire introductory physics course was recorded and made available online.

Evelyn Tang, who took Shankar’s introductory physics class as a junior at Yale, remembers him as an accessible teacher who always made time for his students. “He would introduce these really difficult concepts, like quantum mechanics, in a way that made the physics really approachable and understandable,” says Tang, now a physics graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Plus he’s just very funny.”

“I’m very pleased to win this prize. You want to make sure you do good physics during your career, but being able to talk about physics is just as important,” Shankar says. “And I have a compulsive desire to talk about this subject to anyone who will listen,” he adds with a laugh.

Past recipients of the Lilienfeld Prize include Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek.

For Schoelkopf, it was a Saturday lecture series at Yale that he attended while in high school, which included demonstrations with liquid nitrogen and helium, that sparked his interest in low-temperature physics. He spent two years at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center developing low-temperature radiation detectors and cryogenic instrumentation for future space missions before venturing into the world of measurement science, nanostructures and microwaves.

“Rob Schoelkopf is a master in the study of nanoscale quantum systems using microwaves,” says Girvin. “The Keithley Award recognizes his fundamental advances in precision measurements.”

The award specifically acknowledges Schoelkopf’s development, along with his team, of a radio-frequency single-electron transistor (described as the “world’s fastest counter of the smallest beans,” according to Girvin). Although versions of this type of transistor already existed, Schoelkopf discovered a way to make it much faster and more sensitive - allowing physicists to understand how electrons move about tiny circuits and opening the door for a whole new class of measurements in a number of fields, including astronomy.

The physicist has also employed microwave techniques in his invention of a self-calibrating thermometer by precisely measuring the electrical noise of single electrons passing through nanodevices. The results have applications in metrology, the science of measurement used by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures to define scientific units.

“I’m incredibly pleased and flattered to win this award. I think very highly of the previous winners, who have made some great innovations.” Schoelkopf says. “It’s a nice validation that these techniques I’ve tried to pioneer are proving useful for others.”

Past recipients of the Keithley Award include John Clarke and Calvin Forrest Quate.

Shankar and Schoelkopf will receive their awards at the annual APS meeting next spring.

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