University’s Center in Beijing hosts physics conference September 1-3

September 2, 2010

The University of Chicago’s new center in Beijing hosted its first academic conference two weeks before its official opening on Sept. 15. The Conference on Novel Quantum States in Condensed Matter brought together approximately 100 physicists from China, Korea, Japan and the United States Sept. 1 to 3.

“China is becoming an important global player and is growing very quickly in science and technology,” said Woowon Kang, professor in physics at UChicago. “This is a good opportunity for the University to build relationships and become an active player in Asia.”

The conference was sponsored by UChicago and the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). Conference co–organizers Kang, Paul Wiegmann, Ilya Gruzberg and Cheng Chin are all members of the UChicago MRSEC. Among the scientists attending the conference was 1957 Nobel laureate and UChicago alumnus Chen Ning Yang, PhD’48. Now 88, Yang still conducts research and publishes his papers online.

Wiegmann, professor in physics, is connected to a network of Chinese scientists working at universities in China, Hong Kong and the United States. Once he proposed the conference to his Chinese colleagues, “They met the idea with enthusiasm, and wheels started rolling,” he said.

The UChicago team has received assistance in organizing the conference from the Chinese Academy of Science, China’s Institute of Physics, Fudan University, Peking University, Tsinghua University, the University of Science and Technology, and the University of Hong Kong.

Wiegmann has visited China several times in recent years, as has Chin, a native of Taiwan.

Kang and Gruzberg made their first visits to mainland China for the conference.

Gruzberg wanted to learn more about Chinese culture, politics and long history for professional reasons. “I would like to meet physicists from China for potential collaboration in the future, as well as to establish a reliable source of student exchange and recruitment,” he said.

Conference presentations covered a variety of topics involving novel quantum states in materials and cold atomic gases, which have potential technological applications. “They are all very exciting, new directions in materials research,” said Chin, associate professor in physics.

Some of these lines of research evolved separately but have begun to converge in recent years. Scientists pursuing different specialties are discovering that they have been studying the same phenomena from different points of view, Chin said.

“When we go to the fundamental level, we start to identify symmetries—the so–called universality, meaning that different systems can be described by the same general laws and properties,” Chin said.

Kang anticipated that topological phenomena (involving mathematical descriptions of objects’ shapes) would emerge as one theme that will bring together physicists of various stripes at the conference.

“It turns out that certain materials in nature have a built–in topological structure, which manifests for a reason that’s not quite clear,” Kang said. He and other physicists are confronting the question of whether this structure can be harnessed for quantum computing, a theoretical concept that if realized would dwarf modern computational capabilities.

“It’s a tremendous problem that we’re working very hard on,” he said.