Newswise — NYU physicist Paul Chaikin has been awarded the 2018 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize of the American Physical Society for his work in founding a new branch of physics.  

Chaikin, who has been on the NYU faculty since 2005 and is a founding member of NYU’s Center for Soft Matter Research, was recognized for his “for pioneering contributions that opened new directions in the field of soft condensed matter physics through innovative studies of colloids, polymers, and packing,” the American Physical Society (APS) said in announcing the award.

“Chaikin has demonstrated a remarkable ability to see through complex problems and to propose simple and elegant models and experiments that shed light on underlying principles,” explained Dov Levine, a professor of physics at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and a Buckley recipient in 2010. “Moreover, Paul’s contributions to the field of soft matter physics go far beyond his published works—the quintessential elegance and beauty of his work have had deep influence, shaping both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the entire field.” 

The Buckley Prize is widely considered to be the highest recognition in condensed matter physics. Past recipients include Nobel Prize winners John Bardeen, Walter Kohn, Philip Anderson, Robert Laughlin, and Alan Heeger, Chaikin’s doctoral advisor at the University of Pennsylvania.  

“Chaikin has rightly been recognized for finding elegant principles underlying the messy phenomena of everyday life and for inspiring a host of researchers from around the world to follow his lead,” noted Levine, who, along with NYU Physics Professor Alexander Grosberg, nominated Chaikin for the award.

Soft condensed matter physics aims to discover the fundamental principles by which large complicated systems organize themselves and to understand how these systems’ physical properties emerge from their organization.  

In recent years, Chaikin and his colleagues have made a series of breakthroughs in the field. They include:

  • The creation of artificial structures that can self-replicate, a process that casts new light on the origin of life and has the potential to yield new types of materials.
  • The development of a method to produce sophisticated structures whose building blocks are a millionth of a meter in size by encoding DNA with instructions for assembly.
  • The devising of a process for moving microscopic particles with the flick of a light switch, prompting colloids to move and then assemble—much like birds flock and move together in flight.
  • The discovery that microscopic particles that bind under low temperatures will melt as temperatures rise to moderate levels, but re-connect under hotter conditions, pointing to new ways to create “smart materials,” cutting-edge materials that adapt to their environment by taking new forms, and to sharpen the detail of 3D printing. 

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