Princeton Center for Theoretical Physics
Programs range from beginnings of universe to future of computing
Princeton NJ — The yearlong thematic programs planned by the Princeton Center for Theoretical Physics will be developed from proposals by faculty members interested in exploring significant problems in the natural sciences that require expertise from a number of disciplines. The center’s faculty fellows will team with other interested faculty members, who will be in residence in the center for the duration of the programs.
The yearlong thematic programs … will be developed from proposals by faculty members interested in exploring significant problems in the natural sciences that require expertise from a number of disciplines.
“For our postdocs and students, the programs will provide an illustrated menu of exciting challenges,” said center director Curtis Callan.
Two initial programs are slated for 2007: “The Big Bang and Beyond,” organized by Igor Klebanov and Paul Steinhardt of physics and David Spergel of astrophysical sciences; and “Frontiers of Quantum Computation,” organized by William Brinkman and Shivaji Sondhi of physics and Robert Calderbank of electrical engineering, mathematics and applied and computational mathematics.
Spergel said the “Big Bang” program comes after a number of advances in cosmology in recent years, including observations from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. The satellite experiment — a collaboration between NASA, Princeton and other institutions — produced a detailed map of remnants of the oldest light in the universe as it emerged from the fireball of the Big Bang.
“While this model has answered a number of the basic questions that have driven cosmology for the past few decades, it has also raised a new set of questions,” Spergel said. “One of the most fundamental questions in cosmology is, ‘What happened during the Big Bang?’
“As an astrophysicist, it is clear that we will need new insights from our particle physics colleagues to address this question and understand the physics that generated the fluctuations that grew to form galaxies,” he said. “For my particle physics colleagues, the early universe will likely be the best place to test string theory and to understand the deep connections between gravity and quantum mechanics.”
The “Frontiers of Quantum Computation” program will be a collaboration of experts in condensed matter physics, materials science and computer science to study new physical and mathematical approaches to constructing high-speed quantum computers.
Brinkman, an influential researcher who was vice president for research at Bell Labs before coming to Princeton three years ago, said that quantum computing represents a stimulating interdisciplinary challenge.
“Quantum computing interfaces to mathematics, computer science, engineering, physics and chemistry, so the program will bring people from many departments together to interact on the subject,” he said. “Building a quantum computer is not an easy thing to do, but what do we live for if we don’t live for grand challenges?”
While the center has not finalized plans for programs beyond the first year, another early program being proposed will address questions of how biological functions evolve and how they are constrained by physical principles. Center fellow William Bialek plans to engage condensed matter theorists and statistical physicists in studying these questions, enhancing connections between theoretical physicists and biologists that have been strengthened through the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.
“There are enormous questions about how we and other animals can learn some things so quickly (and other things so slowly),” Bialek said. “In the past several years these questions have become more accessible experimentally. … Some of these experiments have been driven by theory, and it seems like we are ready for a much more active give-and-take between theory and experiment. If we can dream a little bit, these discussions could lead to something like a theory of what organisms should be like in order to function with maximal efficiency in their environment, and also to a clearer picture of the dynamics by which organisms can arrive at this optimum.”