Research at Chicago

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.