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Current and former U. professors awarded for work in physics

Associate physics professor Bogdan Andrei Bernevig and former University professor Arthur McDonald were recognized for their work in physics on Sunday – Bernevig was awarded the 2016 New Horizons in Physics Prize, and McDonald was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.


McDonald, who completed his postdoctoral work at the University, received the award for his work on neutrinos. He was also awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physicson Oct. 6.

McDonald did not respond to a request for comment.

The Breakthrough Prize was founded in 2012 by four married couples – Google co-founder Sergey Brin and 23andme co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and Julia Milner.

Janet Wootten, Senior Vice President at Rubenstein Communications, the media relations company representing Breakthrough Prize, said that the New Horizons in Physics Prize is awarded to up-and-coming physicists.

“[The Breakthrough Prizes] are designed to be early-career prizes to acknowledge and boost the efforts and careers of prominent young mathematicians and physicists,” she said.

In addition to awarding the New Horizons in Physics Prize, the organization also awards the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, mathematics and life sciences.


Bernevig will share the award with Liang Fu, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Xiao-Liang Qi, of Stanford University. Bernevig’s research revolves around the concept of topological insulators, a new state of matter.

“Normally insulators are very boring. They don’t conduct electricity. But in topological insulators, if you sit on the inside, you see no current, but if you sit on the surface, you see perfect current,” Bernevig said.

The selection committee was very impressed with the breadth of Bernevig’s work, Edward Witten, a researcher who chairs the committee, said. Witten added that topological insulators are new and not much is known about them.

“It is the most exciting field in physics, and topological insulators are very interesting intellectually and have beautiful applications,” Witten said.

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Juan Maldacena GS ’96, who was also on the selection committee, said that Bernevig was chosen to receive the New Horizons award based on the broad applications of his research.

“These [topological insulators] have many applications. For example, they can be used to build quantum computers,” Maldacena said.

Unlike current computers, quantum computers can perform calculations much faster by using the laws of quantum mechanics, where particles of light and matter can be in different places at the same time.

Bernevig received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and joined the University as a postdoctoral researcher in 2006. He became an associate professor in 2009.

While he is honored to have received the award, Bernevig said he doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels.

“Getting a prize is always nice – it’s not the beginning or end of anything, but it’s like getting a nice ice cream,” he said.

As part of the prize, Bernevig received $33,000. He said he plans to use the money to take a trip to somewhere exotic.

“Most of the money will go to the government, but I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska or Antarctica,” Bernevig said.

The selection committee for the physics prize included Witten, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Nathan Seiberg and Maldacena, who are researchers at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Other committee members included Michael Green, whose position as the University of Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics is one of the most prestigious in the world according to The Daily Telegraph, and MIT physics professor Alan Guth, who completed their postdoctoral work at the University in 1972 and 1974 respectively.

University physics professor Alexander Polyakov and former assistant physics professor John Schwarz, as well as renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, also served on the committee.