Research Areas

As a premiere research department, the University of Chicago does world-class research on a broad spectrum of subjects. Below, you will find descriptions of research areas and the faculty involved in them. A distinguishing feature of Chicago's department is our commitment to surmount disciplinary barriers in our pursuit of research goals. This commitment dates back to the Manhattan Project of World War II. At that time, a diverse team from nuclear physics, metallurgy and chemical engineering scored a major success on an urgent national problem. From this effort came the realization that the organization of doctoral education by disciplines was not necessarily optimal for the advancement of knowledge. Thus the university created a network of research institutes, coexisting with the academic departments such as physics. Research is done under the aegis of the Institutes; degrees are granted by the Departments. The initial two institutes involving physicists are now called the Enrico Fermi Institute and the James Franck Institute.

The Enrico Fermi Institute or EFI grew from its initial emphasis on nuclear physics to encompass modern high energy physics, string theory, relativity, astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. The Institute includes physicists, astronomers and cosmochemists. In the 1980's the EFI gave birth to a fruitful merger of particle physics and the study of the early universe. This unified, cross-disciplinary view of particle physics and cosmology has now become the norm in the wider physics community. At Chicago, it has spawned a new Institute: the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

The James Franck Institute or JFI grew from an early emphasis on metals to encompass atomic-scale dynamics of inorganic surfaces. More recently it has come to embrace condensed matter physics and physical chemistry, including correlated electronic states, soft condensed matter, nanoscale physics, self-organization phenomena, and organized molecular processes in living cells. For such research topics physics and chemistry are co-equal and strongly interdependent. Members of the Franck Institute now include computer scientists, mathematicians, as well as geochemists. The JFI is the organizational home of a powerful materials research effort, part of the nationwide Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs), funded by the National Science Foundation. More recently, interest in biophysics has given birth to the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics.

The interdisciplinary spirit of the physics department extends to the training of Ph.D. students. Ten to twenty percent of physics PhD's are supervised by members of other academic departments, chiefly chemists and astronomers. A significant number of physics PhD committees include at least one member in another academic discipline. The faculty's commitment to dialog and collaboration with other disciplines is now deeply rooted and ingrained.

For more information on research institutes involving physicists, see our Institutes and Centers page.

Astrophysics

Observational

The University of Chicago is a major center for interdisciplinary research in observational astrophysics. Members of the Department of Physics work in close collaboration with members of the the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Research in experimental astrophysics is organized under the Enrico Fermi Institute. Groups that are involved in experimental astrophysics research include members of the Laboratory for Space Research (LASR) and the High Energy Physics group. Current areas of research include high energy gamma-ray astrophysics with atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes; development of giant air shower array (Auger Project) for investigation of the highest energy cosmic rays; development of large detectors for high energy cosmic rays on space and balloon payloads; experimental investigations of cosmic ray electrons and of the elemental and isotopic abundances of cosmic-ray nuclei over a wide energy range; investigations of solar, magnetospheric, and heliospheric phenomena with satellite and deep space missions; development of instruments to detect polarization in the far-infrared emission from interstellar clouds; investigation of the magnetic field structure of dense cloud cores; airborne and mountain-top polarimetry; direct searches for non-baryonic dark matter. Collar, Cronin, Hildebrand, Müller, Privitera, Wakely.

Theoretical

The University of Chicago is a leader in interdisciplinary research in theoretical astrophysics including connections to particle physics, general relativity, and computational physics. Collaboration with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is organized under the Enrico Fermi Institute. We have close ties to the ASCI Flash Center at Chicago, which carries out numerical studies of astrophysical thermonuclear flashes. Current research topics include the nature of dark matter, plasma physics and magnetohydrodynamics, ultra-high energy cosmic ray processes, solar and stellar astrophysics, and astrophysical fluid dynamics. Parker, Rosner, Turner.

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Atomic Physics

Experimental

Strongly interacting quantum gases and engineered quantum materials. Laser cooling and trapping of neutral atoms to study many-body physics at ultralow temperatures. Formation of ultracold complex molecules in Bose gases and Cooper pairing in Fermi gases. Scalable quantum manipulations using ultracold atoms in optical lattices. Rydberg mediated interactions (EIT) between photons. Cavity Quantum Electrodynamics. Scalable quantum manipulations using ultracold atoms in optical lattices. Tests of time-reversal symmetry by the attempt to detect a permanent electric-dipole moment in Ra-255. Atom Trap Trace Analysis method for dating long-lived cosmogenic isotopes. Abella, Chin, Lu, Simon.

Theoretical

The theory of ultracold fermionic superfluids and the BCS-BEC crossover. Ionization dynamics and inner-shell physics of atoms, molecules, and clusters; strong-field and electron correlation effects in the VUV and x-ray regimes; collisions of low-energy electrons with molecules; high-precision spectroscopy; non-Hermiticity in quantum mechanics; computational methods. Levin

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Beam Physics

Investigation of particle and photon beams and their mutual interactions with the goal of developing novel accelerators or radiation devices. Some current topics are production and acceleration of high-brightness electron beams for linear colliders and free electron lasers; beam dynamics in ionization cooling for muon colliders and neutrino factories; self-amplified spontaneous emission for intense, coherent x-rays; miniature IR radiation source via Smith-Purcell process using electron microscope beams; phase-space evolution of synchrotron radiation beams and quantum particle beams. Theoretical and experimental programs at the Enrico Fermi Institute on campus, at the Argonne National Laboratory Advanced Photon Source, and the A0 facility in Fermilab. KJ Kim.

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Biological Physics

Cells are dynamical systems that evolve far from the equilibrium, but they are also reliable machines able to perform sophisticated computations: they can sense and interpret signals associated with external environmental cues. Our biophysics research is interested in characterizing the organizing principles of biological networks that govern essential cellular processes such as the ability to sense, transmit and generate signals. For example, some dynamic composite polymer networks display the properties of a mechanical machine. Throughout the study of these complex networks we hope to identify some general physical aspects of biological organization. This research offers interdisciplinary training opportunities for individuals with either a biological or physical sciences background. Techniques involved in biophysics depend on the expertise of non-linear dynamics, computational biology, lasers, time-resolved fluorescence, confocal microscopy, protein-engineering, signal transduction, gene expression, mathematical modeling, large-scale simulations, stochastic and self-assembly processes, optical and holographic traps, single-molecule biophysics. Biron, Gardel,Rust. Related work by faculty in the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics.

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Condensed Matter

Experimental

U of C Physics faculty conduct a broad program of experiments in condensed matter phenomena. The main site of this research is the interdisciplinary James Franck Institute. Topics of study include optical and electronic transport in normal and superconducting nanocrystals and arrays. Collective effects at ultra-low temperatures including the (fractional) quantum Hall effect, vortex tunneling, metal-insulator transitions, and magnetic quantum critical points. Symmetry-breaking and fluctuations in heavy fermion, organic, and high-Tc superconductors. Nonlinear dynamics and flow properties of granular materials. Scaling behavior of liquid flow and droplet breakup. Mathematical analysis and computer simulation of singularity formation. Universal scaling behavior of relaxation phenomena in supercooled liquids and glasses. Microscopic kinetics and dynamics of phase transitions in colloidal suspensions. Manipulation by dynamic optical holographic traps. Molecular regulation within living cells. Self-assembly and morphology of ultrathin polymer films. Gardel, Guyot-Sionnest, Irvine, Isaacs, Jaeger, Kang, Nagel, Rosenbaum, Schuster. Also see the Materials Research Science & Engineering Center (MRSEC).

Theoretical

U of C Physics faculty conduct a wide range of theoretical investigations into condensed matter phenomena. The main site of this research is the interdisciplinary James Franck Institute. Topics of study include macroscopic dynamics of materials, interfacial singularities, and non-linear processes. Turbulent, chaotic, and stochastic behavior in hydrodynamic and other dynamical systems. Spatial self-organization in polymers, surfactant monolayers, colloids and cell assemblies. Physics of magnetic and superconducting materials (systems) driven by a strong interaction. Physics in low dimensions. Fermi liquid and non-Fermi liquid states in many body systems. High temperature superconductivity. Quantum phase transitions. Phase ordering kinetics and defect dynamics. Non-perturbative phenomena in electronic systems; strongly correlated electronic systems, magnetism. Transition between jammed and fluid states in granular matter, glass-forming liquids, and magnetic flux lattices. Integrable models of statistical mechanics and quantum field theory. Kadanoff, K. Levin, M. Levin, Mazenko, Wiegmann, Witten, Zhang.

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Cosmology

Observational

The University of Chicago is a major center for interdisciplinary research in observational cosmology. Members of the Department of Physics work in close collaboration with members of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Research in observational cosmology is organized under the Enrico Fermi Institute. Studies of the cosmic microwave background radiation spectrum and anisotropy with ground and space-based detectors. Search for polarization in the cosmic background radiation. Measurements of the Sunyaev-Zelodovich effect for clusters of galaxies. Measurements of intergalactic radiation fields. Carlstrom, Meyer.

Theoretical

The University of Chicago is a leader in interdisciplinary research in theoretical cosmology, including connections to particle physics, general relativity, and computational physics. Collaboration with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is organized under the Enrico Fermi Institute. The Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics organizes research, symposia, a visitors program, and education/outreach activities at the interface of phyiscs and astrophysics. We also have close ties to the Fermilab Theoretical Astrophysics Group, which focuses on both early- and late-universe cosmology. Current research topics include Cosmology and elementary particle physics. Big-Bang nucleosynthesis. Tests of the Big Bang model. Baryogenesis and cosmological phase transitions. Topological defects. Inflationary cosmology. Cosmic microwave background radiation. Formation of structure in the universe. The nature of dark energy and connections to string theory and quantum gravity. Aspects of string cosmology. Turner. Related work by faculty in the department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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General Relativity

The General Relativity group at the University of Chicago engages in research across a wide variety of topics in classical and quantum gravitation, as well as forays into astrophysics, condensed matter theory, and mathematical physics. This work is carried out within the Enrico Fermi Institute. Some topics of long-standing interest include black holes, quantum field theory in curved spacetime, cosmology, functional analysis, asymptotic structure, mathematical foundations of general relativity, quantum gravitation, lower-dimensional gravity, alternative theories and experimental tests. Geroch, HolzWald.

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Microscopy

Development of high resolution scanning ion and electron microprobes, imaging microanalysis by secondary ion mass spectrometry, application of imaging microanalysis to study advanced ceramics, visualization of dynamic processes and of biological matter. Levi-Setti.

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Nuclear Physics

Studies of the nuclear many-body system. Nuclear structure and interactions, nuclear reactions in astrophysics, nuclear matter under extreme conditions, precision measurements of critical information to nucleosynthesis along the r- and rp-process paths. Low-energy experiments in fundamental interactions and symmetries. Production, cooling and trapping of rare isotopes, R&D for the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA) project. Non-nucleonic degrees of freedom in nuclei and phenomena requiring a quark description. Coherent nuclear scattering. Exotic nuclear structure. Collar, Lu, Savard, Schiffer and colleagues in the Argonne National Laboratory Physics Division.

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Particle Physics

Experimental

The experimental High Energy Physics group is active in a range of experiments studying the fundamental constituents of matter. The work includes accelerator-based experiments, studies using nuclear reactors, and the detection of new particles from astrophysical sources. This research takes place within the Enrico Fermi Institute and in many cases is joint with faculty in other departments. Faculty also work in close collaboration with researchers at CERN, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. The University of Chicago manages the latter two laboratories for the Department of Energy. Current research in high-energy physics includes studies of p-p interactions at 14 TeV using the LHC at CERN; studies of pbar-p interactions at 2 TeV using the Tevatron at Fermilab; searches for supersymmetric particles, the Higgs boson, and other unobserved forms of matter; precision tests of the electroweak theory through measurements of the properties of the top quark and the W and Z bosons; searches for dark matter, both in collider experiments and from astrophysical sources; study of neutrino oscillations; studies of the highest energy cosmic rays; high-precision measurement of CP violation in K decays and high-sensitivity search for rare K decays; R&D work, both of new collider facilities and of measurement tools which can expand the reach of current research. Blucher, Cronin, Frisch, KJ KimYK KimMerritt, Oreglia, Pilcher, SchmitzShochet, Wah.

Theoretical

The Particle Theory Group, part of the Enrico Fermi Institute, carries out research on a wide range of theoretical topics in formal and phenomenological particle physics, including field theory, string theory, supersymmetry, the standard model and beyond, cosmology, and mathematical physics. There are strong ties to the Fermilab Theoretical Physics Group, the Argonne Theoretical High Energy Group, and the High Energy Experiment group at Chicago. Among the many research topics are string theory and unification, duality in gauge theory and string theory, solitons and topological structures, D-branes, non-commutative geometry, the AdS/CFT correspondence, inflationary cosmology, the cosmological constant problem, CP violation, B physics, baryogenesis, supersymmetric model building, precision electroweak measurements, low-energy supersymmetry, heavy quark physics, confinement in QCD, quantum theory of black holes, large extra dimensions, fermion mass hierarchy, and integrable systems. Carena, Freund, Harvey, Hill, Kutasov, Martinec, Nambu, J.Rosner, Sethi, Wagner, Wang.

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