2011 Dirac Medal of the Institute of Physics

Professor Christopher Isham

Imperial College London

For his major contributions to the search for a consistent quantum theory of gravity and to the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Chris Isham is a worldwide authority in the fields of quantum gravity and the foundations of quantum theory. Few corners of these subjects have escaped his penetrating mathematical investigations and few workers in these areas have escaped the influence of his fundamental contributions. Isham was one of the first to put quantum field theory on a curved background into a proper mathematical form and his work on anti-de Sitter space is now part of the subject’s standard toolkit. 

His early work on conformal anomalies has similarly gone from “breakthrough to calibration”, as all good physics does. He invented the concept of twisted fields which encode topological aspects of the spacetime into quantum theory, and which have found wide application. He did pioneering work on global aspects of quantum theory, developing a group-theoretic approach to quantization, now widely regarded as the “gold standard” of sophisticated quantization techniques. This work laid some of the foundations for the subsequent development of loop-space quantum gravity of Ashtekar and collaborators (the only well-developed possible alternative to string theory). He has also made significant contributions to quantum cosmology and especially the notoriously conceptually difficult “problem of time”.

On the foundations of quantum theory, Isham has made many contributions to the decoherent histories approach to quantum theory (of Gell-Mann and Hartle, Griffiths, Omnes and others), a natural extension of Copenhagen quantum mechanics which lessens dependence on notions of classicality and measurement in the quantum formalism. In particular, using a novel temporal form of quantum logic, he established the axiomatic underpinnings of the decoherent histories approach, crucial to its generalization and application to the quantization of gravity and cosmology.

His recent work has been concerned with the very innovative application of topos theory, a generalization of set theory, into theoretical physics. He showed how it could be used to give a new logical interpretation of standard quantum theory, and also to extend the notion of quantization, giving a firm footing to ideas such as “quantum topology” or “quantum causal sets”. Isham’s contributions to all of these areas, and in particular his continual striving to expose the underlying mathematical and conceptual structures, form an essential part of almost all approaches to quantum gravity.