Newton Lecture on life as a theoretical physicist

12 January 2012

Professor Leo Kadanoff, winner of the 2011 Isaac Newton Medal, will give his Newton Lecture on Friday 13 January at the Institute of Physics (IOP) in London just one day before his 75th birthday.

Newton Lecture on life as a theoretical physicist
Credit: Chris Leather

The lecture by Leo Kadanoff, Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago and the Perimeter Institute, is entitled ‘Innovation and Achievement in Theoretical Physics’, and will discuss the wide range of his life’s work.

The Isaac Newton Medal, which was established in 2008 and is the Institute’s most prestigious award, was given to Professor Kadanoff in 2011 for inventing conceptual tools that reveal the deep implications of scale invariance on the behaviour of phase transitions and dynamical systems.

As Professor Kadanoff explains, “In 1965-71, a group of people, myself included, formulated and perfected a new approach to physics problems, under the names of scaling, universality and renormalization. 

“This work became the basis of a wide variety of theories ranging from particle physics and relativity, through condensed matter physics, and into economics and biology.” 

He says, “This work [on scaling, universality and renormalization] was of transcendental beauty and of considerable intellectual importance but it left me with a personal problem.  What next?  Constructing the answer to that question would dominate the next 45 years of my professional life.”

In his lecture, Professor Kadanoff will explain how he conceptualises his own work pattern – by breaking his work up into three parts – to ensure the greatest scientific benefits.  

Professor Kadanoff describes these three parts as, firstly, helping to broaden the definition of physics by working at the boundaries of the subject; secondly, ensuring that physics knowledge is used to inform discussion of the major problems of our day; and, lastly, helping colleagues via critical assessment of their work to aid advancement.

In these three endeavours, Professor Kadanoff’s work has influenced urban growth, intelligent design, large-scale computer simulations, superconductivity, redefining how models can be used in condensed matter physics, and disorder, turbulence and chaos in physical systems.

Other significant achievements in Professor Kadanoff’s career include a term as President of the American Physical Society and being one of the recipients of the US’s National Medal of Science, awarded by President Clinton in 1999.

Currently he is working on hydrodynamics and problems in general relativity.

Discussing the incredible variety of his work, Kadanoff says, “I believe the tools of a physicist – particularly a theoretical physicist – are useful in a wide variety of contexts.  Different fields of physics come and go and problems get solved.  If you stick with a problem after it’s been solved it’s not much fun for you and not of much use to the world.  I try to change the area that I work on every seven years or so – I try to do different things.”

With just a few spaces still available at the lecture, you can register to attend