Welcome, Professor Vladimir Zhdankin!

profile photo of Vladimir Zhdankin
Vladimir Zhdankin (credit: Flatiron Institute)

Theoretical plasma astrophysicist Vladimir Zhdankin ‘11, PhD ’15, returns to UW–Madison as an assistant professor of physics on January 1, 2024. As a student, Zhdankin worked with Prof. Stas Boldyrev on solar wind turbulence and basic magnetohydrodynamic turbulence, which are relevant for near-Earth types of space plasmas. After graduating, Zhdankin began studying plasma astrophysics of more extreme environments. He first completed a postdoc at CU-Boulder, then a NASA Einstein Fellowship at Princeton University. He joins the department from the Flatiron Institute in New York, where he is currently a Flatiron Research Fellow.

Please give an overview of your research. 

These days, most of my interest is in the field of plasma astrophysics — the application of plasma physics to astrophysical problems. Much of the matter in the universe is in a plasma state, such as stars, the matter around black holes, and the interstellar medium in the galaxy. I’m interested in understanding the plasma processes in those types of systems. My focus is particularly on really high energy systems, like plasmas around black holes or neutron stars, which are dense objects where you could get extreme plasmas where relativistic effects are important. The particles are traveling at very close to the speed of light, and there’s natural particle acceleration occurring in these systems. They also radiate intensely, you could see them from halfway across the universe. There’s a need to know the basic plasma physics in these conditions if you want to interpret observations of those systems. A lot of my work involves doing plasma simulations of turbulence in these extreme parameter regimes.

What are one or two research projects you’ll focus on the most first?

One of them is on making reduced models of plasmas by using non-equilibrium statistical mechanical ideas. Statistical mechanics is one of the core subjects of physics, but it doesn’t really seem to apply to plasmas very often. This is because a lot of plasmas are in this regime that’s called collisionless plasma, where they are knocked out of thermal equilibrium, and then they always exist in a non-thermal state. That’s not what standard statistical mechanics is applicable to. This is one of the problems that I’m studying, whether there is some theoretical framework to study these non-equilibrium plasmas, to understand basic things like: what does it mean for entropy to be produced in these types of plasmas? The important application of this work is to explain how are particles accelerated to really high energies in plasmas. The particle acceleration process is important for explaining cosmic rays which are bombarding the Earth, and then also explaining the highest energy radiation which we see from those systems.

Another thing I’m thinking about these days is plasmas near black holes. In the center of the Milky Way, for example, there’s a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*, which was recently imaged a year or two ago by the Event Horizon Telescope. It’s a very famous picture. What you see is the shape of the black hole and then all the plasma in the vicinity, which is in the accretion disk. I’m trying to understand the properties of that turbulent plasma and how to model the type of radiation coming out of the system. And then also whether we should expect neutrinos to be coming out, because you would need to get very high energy protons in order to produce neutrinos. And it’s still an open question of whether or not that happens in these systems.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?

It’s just a perfect match in many ways. It really feels like a place where I’m confident that I could succeed and accomplish my goals, be an effective mentor, and build a successful group. It has all the resources I need, it has the community I need as a plasma physicist to interact with. I think it has a lot to offer to me and likewise, I have a lot to offer to the department there. I’m also really looking forward to the farmers’ market and cheese and things like that. You know, just the culture there.

What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?

I like the muon. It is just a heavy version of the electron, I don’t remember, something like 100 times more massive or so. It’s funny that such particles exist and this is like the simplest example of one of those fundamental particles which we aren’t really familiar with, it’s just…out there. You could imagine situations where you just replace electron with a muon and then you get slightly different physics out of it.

What hobbies and interests do you have?

They change all the time. But some things I’ve always done: I like running, skiing, bouldering indoors, disk golf, racquet sports, and hiking. (Cross country or downhill skiing?) It’s honestly hard to choose which one I prefer more. In Wisconsin, definitely cross country. If I’m in real mountains, the Alps or the Rockies, then downhill is just an amazing experience.

Welcome, Professor Matthew Otten!

profile photo of Matt Otten
Matthew Otten

Atomic, molecular and optical and quantum theorist Matthew Otten will join the UW–Madison physics department as an assistant professor on January 3, 2024. He joins us most recently from HRL Laboratories. Prior to HRL, Otten earned his PhD from Cornell University, and then was the Maria Goeppert Mayer fellow at Argonne National Laboratory.

Please give an overview of your research.

Very generally, my goal is to make utility scale quantum computing a reality, and to get there faster than we would otherwise without my help. We have a lot of theoretical reasons to believe that quantum algorithms will be faster in certain areas; in practice, we need to know how expensive it’s going to be. It could be that a back of the envelope calculation says a quantum computer might be better, but because quantum computers are very expensive to build and have a lot of overhead, you could find that once you crunch the numbers really carefully, it turns out to cost more money or more energy or more time than just doing it on a supercomputer. In that case, it’s not worth the investment to build it, or at least not at this point. Part of my research is to understand and develop quantum algorithms and count how expensive they are. Once you do that, you can figure out the reason it’s so expensive is A and B. Then we go and we try to fix A and B, and then whack-a-mole all these bottlenecks down and eventually you go from, “It’ll never work,” to “Okay, it’ll work in twenty years.”

Another part of my research is looking at the physical qubits. These devices all have a lot of deep physics inside of them. If you just look at it from the quantum algorithm level, you might get so far. But if you dig down and try to understand the underlying physics, I think you can get further. You might be able to make devices cheaper, faster, or more performant in general. I do a lot of simulations of the underlying physics of these various types of qubits to understand what their properties are, what causes the noise that ruins computation, and what we can do to fix that noise. Through simulations on classical computers, sometimes very large ones, we come up with ways to tweak the system so that you get better performance, by coming up with better quantum algorithms and better qubits. Put those together and hopefully you get to a better quantum computer.

Once you arrive in Madison, what are one or two research projects you think your group will focus on first?

I’ll be bringing a few projects with me. The first is part of a DARPA program called Quantum Benchmarking, which I was part of while at HRL. We found really high-value computational tasks, not specifically quantum, that Boeing, which owns HRL, would like calculated: for instance, reducing corrosion. Corrosion causes planes to be grounded for maintenance, which is costly. Reducing corrosion will reduce maintenance costs and increase uptime. We’ve been developing ways to ask and answer the question, how close are today’s quantum computers to solving that problem? How big do quantum computers need to be to solve that problem? The specific task is understanding what it takes to solve such a large-scale problem, counting the quantum resources that are necessary and coming up with tests so that you could go to a quantum computer, run the tests, and hopefully be able to predict how much bigger or how much faster they would need to be to solve the problem.

Another one comes from the Wellcome Leap Foundation. We are trying to do the largest, most accurate calculation of biological objects — a molecule, string of carbon, something like this — possible on a real-life quantum computer. We’re trying to take techniques that have already been developed or develop new techniques to make circuits smaller, which means a less expensive quantum computer, and faster. That one is a competition, they gave us funding to do it, but if we complete the task better than other competitors, we get more funding to do more.

What attracted you to UW­–Madison?

The strength of the science that’s happening in the physics and broader Wisconsin community is very attractive. When I visited, everyone was very nice, it’s a very collegial department. And being from St. Louis, I like the Midwest. I’ve lived in Southern California for a couple of years now and I haven’t seen snow, and that’s sad. Madison is a lovely area. Great people.

What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle? 

I think it has to be silicon. Silicon is used in classical computing and potentially has use in quantum computing. And you’re carrying around silicon right now, just like everyone else.

What hobbies and interests do you have? 

I have a Siberian Husky puppy and we’ll be very happy to go to Madison and do a lot of skijoring, which is cross country skiing, but the dog pulls you. I started running recently and I was jazzed up for my first half marathon and then I got COVID and I didn’t do it, so I’m still jazzed up for my first half marathon. I play a lot of board games and have a very large board game collection. And my daughter just turned one. She’s become a new hobby.

Welcome, Professor Rogerio Jorge!

profile photo of Rogerio Jorge
Rogerio Jorge

Plasma theorist Rogerio Jorge will join the UW–Madison physics department as an assistant professor on January 1, 2024. He joins us from IST in Lisbon, Portugal, where he is a research professor. Jorge completed his first postdoc at the University of Maryland at College Park, then accepted a Humboldt Fellowship where he worked on the design of fusion energy devices in Greifswald, Germany.

Please give an overview of your research.

My work is twofold: I uncover basic plasma physics phenomena and apply my plasma physics knowledge to the realization of fusion energy. My most recent work is devoted to the design of Stellarators, a type of fusion machine that is free of major instabilities and disruptions. Here, we try to have this clean renewable energy available to the world as fast as possible. While I’ve been doing research on fusion since my PhD studies, where I focused on one type of device called the Tokamak, when I went to the U.S. for my postdoc, I started focusing on the Stellarator. The Stellarator has had a lot of research since the ’60s, but only recently it had a big resurgence.

Thanks to the enormous progress in computational power, I do a lot of simulations for my work. I have worked on several codes, each focusing on a particular physics or engineering problem such as electromagnetic coils, stability, turbulence, and energy retention, which are all used in combination to do designs for new machines. I also collaborate with startups seeking to rapidly develop fusion energy and supervise students and postdocs who are trying to get new designs for new machines. Most of our work is in the realm of classical physics, based on things that people learn while they’re majoring in physics such as electrodynamics and electromagnetism. But then, we couple it with new computational and mathematical techniques, such as machine learning, to streamline our workflow.

We have ideas for Stellarator design that could allow for much better performance than we had before so that the resulting devices achieve higher temperatures and higher densities. However, we should always take into account that theory and experiment may operate on different planes. We are in contact with experimentalists who sometimes tell us, “Your machine is too complicated to build!” And then we have to go back and incorporate their constraints into the design.

Once you arrive in Madison, what are one or two research projects you think your group will focus on first?

Stellarator design and optimization will be one of the main branches, and we have many projects that either could be started or have started in my research group now that we will be continuing in Madison. One of these topics is the confinement of fast particles resulting from fusion reactions, that is, alpha particle dynamics. These must stay confined long enough to continuously feed energy to the plasma, leading to what we call a burning plasma. Right now, the machines we have, they’re still prototypes, meaning that they haven’t made many studies on the physics of burning plasmas. We still need to do a lot of research on it. Once we turn on the machine and start getting a lot of energy, we must be able to predict what’s going on. Burning plasma physics or fast particle physics is one of the major issues. Besides burning plasma physics, I will also continue the work on stellarator optimization, with a particular focus on how machine learning can help us obtain increasingly better designs and how to incorporate experimental constraints into the optimization. Another branch will be the study of basic plasma physics with a particular focus on astrophysical plasmas. During my PhD, I developed a method to accurately incorporate collisions between charged particles in plasmas. I intend to further develop that technique, creating a numerical tool that is easy to use and can be used to predict extreme events in space, as well as predict the behavior of plasmas in the lab, such as the Wisconsin Plasma Physics Laboratory.

What attracted you to Madison? 

Madison has one of the best physics departments in the world, particularly in my area of plasma physics. I believe it’s one of the top places that people think of when they do the sort of work that I do, stellarators and basic plasma physics. This is because there is here a prototype fusion device, a myriad of experimental plasma physics facilities, and people doing state-of-the-art theory and simulation.  Furthermore, when I visited Madison, I loved the views, the lakes, and the overall quality of life.

What is your favorite element or elementary particle?

I think I like the neutrino. It was fun learning about neutrinos in particle physics. They were thought to have no mass, but their flavors can actually oscillate while they travel, and this yields a very tiny but finite amount of mass. Besides, they can go through essentially everything without getting detected, they’re basically invisible! It’s something that you think you know what it is, and you know all the calculations and you understand it, but at the end of the day experiments and the nature tells you that you don’t exactly know what you think you know. There’s more to the story there and they seem so simple, yet there is more to the story.

What hobbies and interests do you have? 

Definitely music. I play the guitar and I like to learn how to play new instruments. I have a few instruments around the house but the one that I am learning how to play right now is the violin. Like the neutrino, even with only four strings, it’s a deceivingly complicated instrument.

Welcome, assistant professor Ilya Esterlis

profile photo of Ilya Esterlis
Ilya Esterlis

When Lake Mendota freezes over in the winter and thaws in the spring, those water/ice phase transitions might seem mundane. But, says new assistant professor of physics Ilya Esterlis, interesting things happen during phase transitions, and commonalities exist between phase transitions of any matter.

“That’s very surprising and strange sounding, but it turns out that there’s a very general framework in which to understand [these commonalities],” Esterlis says. “It’s this notion of universality, and by studying phase transitions you’re simultaneously studying a very broad class of materials.”

Esterlis, a condensed matter theorist whose research focuses on materials and phase transitions, joins the department January 1, 2023. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, and joined us for a virtual interview earlier this fall.

Can you please give an overview of your research?

I am a condensed matter theorist, so I study materials, and in particular I try to classify different phases of matter and the phase transitions between those phases of matter. I’m mostly interested in electronic systems, where you have a large macroscopic number of interacting electrons and are trying to understand the kind of phenomena that can emerge when you have that large number of degrees of freedom interacting with one another. And a lot of these things are motivated by experiments — not all of them. There are some more academic questions that I’m interested in investigating and they’re a bit more formal. But I’m also motivated by interesting things that are happening in the lab. Part of my work is not only trying to characterize and understand phases of matter, but also trying to propose ways that different phases could be detected experimentally, how they would manifest themselves in different experimental signatures.

I’m also interested in superconductivity. My PhD work focused a lot on trying to understand the optimal conditions for making superconductors — if you could have every knob at your disposal, what would you do to optimize them? Optimize in this case means: make superconductors that exist at as high of a temperature as possible. Superconductivity is typically a low temperature phenomenon, so there’s a holy grail in condensed matter physics trying to make higher temperature superconductors. Part of my work has been organized around trying to understand what would be even in principle the optimal route towards achieving higher temperature superconductors.

Once you’re in Madison, what are one or two research projects you and your group will focus on?

I will focus a good amount of my research efforts on studying superconductivity, continuing this line of investigation into what the optimal conditions for superconductors are. If you had all the freedom in the world, how would you build the best superconductor that exists to high temperatures and under normal laboratory conditions? Not under extreme, unrealistic conditions but in an everyday parameter regime. And that involves understanding the superconducting state itself. Superconductors are a phase of matter that is distinct from, say, a metal, which is also a good conductor but not a superconductor. But oftentimes to understand superconductors better, one has to understand the state from which they came. That is to say, you take a metal and you cool it down to low temperatures and it goes from being a good conductor to a superconductor. To understand that superconductor, it’s often helpful to understand the metal from which it came at higher temperature. And sometimes those metals can be conventional, like copper wires, but sometimes they can be very unconventional metals and strange for various reasons. One open question is: what is the interplay between superconductivity and unusual metals? If you take a high temperature unusual metal, what is the kind of superconductor that it turns into at lower temperature? And unusual in this context means that it has some properties that are not typical to conventional metals. For instance, there’s predictions for how resistance changes with temperature in a conventional metal but unusual metals have rather different resistance behaviors.

What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?

Helium is remarkable in that it has a number of unusual properties. For instance, if you cool it down to zero temperature it does not crystallize, it remains a liquid. That’s solely due to quantum mechanics, which is kind of an incredible thing. If you do make it crystallize by applying pressure, then that solid itself also has very interesting properties.

And my favorite elementary particle is the anyon. It’s not elementary, say, in the sense of electrons or quarks. But it’s this really remarkable thing that happens in condensed matter systems where if you take a macroscopic number of electrons and you subject them to a very large magnetic field, then a remarkable thing happens where the behavior of the system, as viewed kind of on macroscopic scales, does not look like the behavior of electrons, it really looks like the behavior of particles called anyons that have fractional electric charge. So they are elementary in condensed matter physics.

What hobbies and interests do you have? 

I really love to play music, guitar specifically. And I have two small kids, two daughters, and I just like hanging out with them.

Welcome, Roman Kuzmin, the Dunson Cheng Assistant Professor of Physics

profile photo of Roman Kuzmin
Roman Kuzmin

In the modern, cutting-edge field of quantum computing, it can be a bit puzzling to hear a researcher relate their work to low-tech slide rules. Yet that is exactly the analogy that Roman Kuzmin uses to describe one of his research goals, creating quantum simulators to model various materials. He also studies superconducting qubits and ways to increase coherence in this class of quantum computer.

Kuzmin, a quantum information and condensed matter scientist, will join the department as an the Dunson Cheng Assistant Professor of Physics on January 1. He is currently a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Joint Quantum Institute in College Park, Md, and recently joined us for an interview.

Can you please give an overview of your research?

My main fields are quantum information and condensed matter physics. For example, one of my interests is to solve complicated condensed matter problems using new techniques and materials which quantum information science developed. Also, it works in the other direction. I am also trying to improve materials which are used in quantum information. I work in the subfield of superconducting circuits. There are several different directions in quantum information, and the physics department at Wisconsin has many of them already, so I will complement work in the department.

Once you’re in Madison and your lab is up and running, what are the first big one or two big things you want to really focus your energy on

One is in quantum information and quantum computing. So, qubits are artificial atoms or building blocks of a quantum computer. I’m simplifying it, of course, but there are environments which try to destroy coherence. In order to scale up those qubits and make quantum computers larger and larger — because that’s what you need eventually to solve anything, to do something useful with it — you need to mitigate decoherence processes which basically prevent qubits from working long enough. So, I will look at the sources of those decoherence processes and try to make qubits live longer and be longer coherent.

A second project is more on the condensed matter part. I will build very large circuits out of Josephson junctions, inductors and capacitors, and such large circuits behave like some many-body objects. It creates a problem which is very hard to solve because it contains many parts, and these parts interact with each other such that the problem is much more complicated than just the sum of those parts.

What are some applications of your work?

Of course this work is interesting for developing theory and understanding our world. But the application, for example for the many-body system I just described, it’s called the quantum impurity. One of my goals is to use this to create a simulator which can potentially model some useful material. It’s like if you have a quantum computer, you can write a program and it will solve something for you. A slide rule is a physical device that allows you to do complicated, logarithmic calculations, but it’s designed to do only this one calculation. I’m creating kind of a quantum slide rule.

What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle? 

So, I have my favorite circuit element: Josephson junction. (editor’s note: the question did not specify atomic element, so we appreciate this clever answer!). And for elementary particle, the photon, especially microwave photons, because that’s what I use in these circuits to do simulations. They’re very versatile and they’re just cool.

What hobbies and interests do you have?

I like reading, travelling, and juggling.

UW Physics alum Kyle Cranmer chosen to lead American Family Insurance Data Science Institute

Cramer, who received his PhD in Physics in 2005 from UW–Madison, will be a faculty member in the Department of Physics in addition to Director of the American Family Data Science Institute


This story was originally published by University Communications

Kyle Cranmer, a University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus who played a significant role in the discovery of the Higgs boson, will become the next director of the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute.

“We are excited to welcome Kyle back to UW–Madison, where he earned his PhD in physics in 2005,” says Amy Wendt, associate vice chancellor for research in the physical sciences. “Kyle brings a background to the position of director that will facilitate research synergies throughout campus, connecting data scientists and domain experts working to address present-day challenges ranging from health care to education, the sciences and beyond.”

Founded in 2019, the institute is working to advance discoveries that benefit society through data science research, the translation of fundamental research into practical applications, and collaboration across disciplines. The institute is a campus focal point for integrating data science into research, and one of its top priorities is to build a thriving data science community at UW–Madison.

Cranmer is currently a physics professor at New York University and will assume leadership of the institute on July 1, 2022, joining the faculty in the UW–Madison Department of Physics, with an affiliate appointment in Statistics. Brian Yandell, the David R. Anderson Founding Director of the data science institute, has served since 2019.

Cranmer arrived at data science through his contributions to the search for the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle that in the 1960s had been theorized to exist and is responsible for giving objects in the universe their mass.

Finding evidence for the particle required navigating enormous amounts of data generated by trillions of high-energy particle collisions. Cranmer developed a method for collaborative statistical modeling that allowed thousands of scientists to work together to seek, and eventually find, strong evidence for the Higgs boson in 2012.

Kyle Cranmer stands next to a statue of Einstein sitting
Drawing on his experiences reaching across traditional academic boundaries, Cranmer aims to build partnerships between people working on data science methodology and those working in the humanities and the natural, physical and social sciences. | CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“Shortly after the discovery, I pivoted to thinking more broadly about data science and machine learning for the physical sciences, identifying synergies and opportunities, and shaping that discussion internationally,” says Cranmer. His research has expanded beyond particle physics and is influencing astrophysics, cosmology, computational neuroscience, evolutionary biology and other fields.

At NYU, Cranmer is executive director of the Moore-Sloan Data Science Environment, associated faculty at the Center for Data Science, and is affiliated with the core machine learning group. His awards and honors include the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering in 2007 and the National Science Foundation’s Career Award in 2009. He was elected a 2021 Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Understanding and addressing the impact data science has on society, and the disproportionate effects it can have on marginalized people, is central to Cranmer’s vision.

One of Cranmer’s goals for the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute is to broaden engagement in data science across campus. Drawing on his own experiences reaching across traditional academic boundaries, he aims to build partnerships between people working on data science methodology and those working in the humanities and the natural, physical and social sciences. Understanding and addressing the impact data science has on society, and the disproportionate effects it can have on marginalized people, is central to his vision for this work.

“Issues around equity, inclusion and bias, and how that impacts society, those are very real problems I think everyone can appreciate,” says Cranmer. “But the way that they manifest themselves technically is much more subtle. Raising awareness of just how subtle and challenging those problems are, I think, is going to be useful for broadening the discussion across campus.”

Cranmer grew up in Arkansas and was in the first graduating class of a public, residential high school for math, science and the arts. He describes the school as a “melting pot” where students interested in computer science, physics, math and engineering collaborated on projects that today might be considered data science. Frustrated by a lack of extracurricular activities at his brand-new school, Cranmer got involved in school politics and student government.

“That was one of my first calls for leadership,” he says. “I came into the school and there was nothing set up at all — no student clubs, no activities. That was a very influential moment for me — realizing that you can be part of the solution and shape the environment around you to make it better.”

Cranmer looks forward to connecting and sharing ideas with people and research centers at UW–Madison. He stresses the importance of building trust, both within and outside the university, by demonstrating the potential for data science to positively affect people’s lives and the world.

“With experience as a national leader in data science, Kyle is well prepared to guide the institute in partnerships with enterprise thought leaders,” says Wendt. “His own research focus on data science methods that broaden participation to advance discovery in particle physics is truly rooted in the Wisconsin Idea.”

For Cranmer, contributing to the Wisconsin Idea is an exciting aspect of his new role. He sees opportunities at UW–Madison to engage with the community in research, such as working with the Division of Extension and farmers on problems like agricultural sustainability, carbon capture and climate change.

“This kind of capability is very, very unique, and there are several different entry points for the Data Science Institute to be involved in such research,” says Cranmer. “The role of data science would be really compelling.”

Following his years of experience shaping the first wave of data science at NYU, Cranmer looks forward to leading an institute that is well positioned to have real-world impact.

“I think that’s a pretty exciting thing to be a part of.”

Willy Haeberli remembered as physicist, teacher, and museum supporter

photo of Willy Haeberli
Willy Haeberli in 2013 | Credit: Pupa Gilbert

University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Emeritus Willy Haeberli passed away October 4, 2021. He was 96.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland on June 17, 1925, Haeberli received his PhD from the University of Basel (Switzerland) in 1952. He joined the faculty of UW–Madison in 1956, retiring in 2005.

Haeberli was a world-class experimental nuclear physicist. His research focused on studying spin effects in nuclear processes and in fundamental interactions. He and his collaborators developed spin-polarized gas targets of atomic hydrogen and deuterium. These “Haeberli cells” were used in many experiments worldwide including the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and DESY Laboratory in Germany, and they were crucial for the success of those experiments.

Haeberli was the Raymond G. Herb Professor of Physics and a Hilldale Professor. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and he won the American Physical Society’s Bonner Prize in nuclear physics in 1979.

In addition to his scientific achievements, Haeberli was an accomplished teacher. He taught physics courses at UW–Madison for 49 years and developed the popular course Physics 109: Physics in the Arts, with Prof. Ugo Camerini. Physics in the Arts has been offered successfully and continuously since 1969, and has been emulated by tens of universities across the country. In the last five years before retiring, he co-taught the course with Prof. Pupa Gilbert. After he retired, Gilbert convinced him to co-write a textbook for Physics in the Arts, published by Academic Press-Elsevier in 2008, and 2011, translated into Chinese and published by Tsinghua University Press in 2011.

“Willy is a giant in my life. He was career changing, life changing, teaching changing, everything. Just the most amazing person I could have ever met,” Gilbert says. “He was, until the last day, my best friend ever, and the closest thing to a father figure I have ever had.”

Gilbert says that Haeberli’s interest in Physics in the Arts may have stemmed from his musician days — he played the flute in a quartet in college — and his wife’s passion for the figurative arts. She continues:

He always loved a lot more the physics of sound compared to the physics of light and color. He and I had feisty disagreements about the physics of light, and I enjoyed every one of them. Very often before classes I would come up with questions, and he could always, always answer them and pacify me. The last one was last spring, when I was teaching sound, and started wondering: Okay, we know that the speed of sound changes dramatically with temperature, but does the frequency change too? In other words, does a tuning fork sound different indoors or outdoors in Madison’s winters? I looked into this seemingly trivial question and could not find any answer I could trust to be right. Until I asked Willy, who (of course!) knew the answer right away, and charmingly explained that the wavelength and the speed of sound vary with temperature for a guitar string or a tuning fork, but the frequency does not. I will miss these elegant answers tremendously!

Haeberli recently made a significant donation to the Ingersoll Physics Museum, which allows for new exhibits to be developed, allows for current exhibits to be improved, and helps fund the docents program which provides tours for visiting school groups. He and his late wife, Dr. Gabriele Haberland, also supported the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, UW­–Madison’s Chazen Museum, and Tandem Press with generous gifts.

Several current and emeritus department members shared their memories of Willy. Please visit the Willy Haeberli tribute page to read those stories. The Wisconsin State Journal also ran an obituary.

Many thanks to Profs. Pupa Gilbert and Baha Balantekin for helping with this obituary

Yang Bai promoted to full professor

Profile photo of Yang Bai
Yang Bai

The Department of Physics is pleased to announce that Prof. Yang Bai has been promoted to the rank of full professor.

“It is my pleasure and honor as Dean to approve Prof. Yang Bai’s promotion to Full Professor. His creativity and impressive breadth in particle physics research make him a leader not only on dark matter, but also more generally on Beyond-the-Standard-Model Physics,” says Eric Wilcots, Dean of the College of Letters & Science. “He is also a valued teacher, appreciated by students especially at the graduate level. Graduate students and junior researchers in Madison are in good hands.”

Bai joined the department in 2012, and was promoted to associate professor in 2017. In addition to his robust and well-funded research program, he has trained several successful graduate students, taught all levels of departmental courses, and served on several departmental and university committees.

“Professor Yang Bai is widely recognized as one of the leading theoretical particle physicists of his generation with a broad and vigorous research program, covering both the collider-related frontiers and the cosmic frontier. His work includes significant contributions in essentially every area related to dark matter,” says Sridhara Dasu, professor and department chair. “The Physics Department very strongly endorses the promotion of Yang Bai to Full Professor.”

Congrats, Prof. Bai on this well-earned recognition!


Deniz Yavuz announced as Vilas Associate

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has announced 23 faculty winners of the Vilas Associates Competition, including physics professor Deniz Yavuz. The Vilas Associates Competition recognizes new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance.

The award is funded by the William F. Vilas Estate Trust.

Recipients are chosen competitively by the divisional research committees on the basis of a detailed proposal. Winners receive up to two-ninths of research salary support (including the associated fringe costs) for both summers 2021 and 2022, as well as a $12,500 flexible research fund in each of the two fiscal years. Faculty paid on an annual basis are not eligible for the summer salary support but are eligible for the flexible fund portion of this award.

Physics alum, professor emeritus Barney Webb remembered for his many contributions to the University and his field

University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Emeritus Maurice Barnett “Barney” Webb passed away January 15, 2021 in Middleton, WI. He was 94.

Born and raised in Neenah, WI in 1926, Professor Webb earned his both his bachelor’s (’50) and doctoral (’56) degrees from the UW–Madison Physics Department. After graduating, he went to work at General Electric Research Laboratory as a staff scientist. In 1961, he returned to UW–Madison as a tenured Associate Professor of Physics.

A 1996 celebration of Barney Webb (front row, center) and his career was attended by many students and colleagues. From left to right: Jim Schilling, Ray Phaneuf, Art Kotz, Bill Weber, Bill Packard, Barney, Ed Conrad, Bill Unertl, John Unguris, Brian Swartzentruber, Liz Moog, Max Lagally | Photo provided by Jim Schilling

Barney served as Department Chair from 1971-1973, taking the reins of a department that had been traumatized by the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing. In 1977, he was named chair of the University Committee, the Executive Committee of the faculty and the most important and visible manifestation of faculty governance at UW–Madison. From 1985-1990, he served as Chair of the UW–Madison Athletic Board. He was an Emeritus Professor with the department since his retirement in 2001.

Remarkably, Barney was as prominent in the scientific community as he was on campus. His research interests included surface physics, low-energy electron diffraction, and scanning tunneling microscopy. In 1987, he was awarded the Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics from the American Physical Society “For his contribution to the development of low-energy electron diffraction as a quantitative probe of the crystallography defect structure, and dynamics of surfaces.” 

Several UW–Madison colleagues recently reflected on their time with Barney.

Of Barney’s competitive academic research program, Emeritus Professor Franz Himpsel says,

“It is particularly notable that during Barney’s career, the big industrial research labs (Bell Labs, IBM, Xerox) dominated at the cutting edge of research in condensed matter and surface physics — Barney’s specialties. Compared to a university professor, their research staff members had vast resources available — not only financially but also via interactions with expert in-house colleagues. Despite the odds, Barney kept up with them by devising clever experiments and building most of his equipment together with his students.”

Current materials science and engineering professor and former student of Barney’s, Max Lagally, recalls, “What always scared me is when Barney started saying ‘I don’t know anything about this, but…’ and then proceeded to demonstrate that he knew all about it.”

Barney is seated on the left and Ray is to Barney's left, crouched down to pose for the photo
Barney Webb (left) and his former student Ray Phaneuf (Ph.D. ’85) in February 2020.

Emeritus Professor Louis Bruch noted that Barney’s competitive edge carried over to interests outside the lab. Bruch says, “He was a competitive gardener, for instance on the question of first ripe tomatoes and last ripe strawberries.” And Professor Pupa Gilbert recalls, “Barney had a terrific sense of humor, and was an intrepid cyclist for most of his life. As he aged, he said that uphill roads ‘got steeper and steeper,’ so he stopped biking on them.”

Professor Mark Eriksson says that Barney was a great mentor and role model, always understated about his own accomplishments, and always willing to offer advice when asked.

“This was certainly true throughout my time on the faculty since 1999, when Barney was supportive and encouraging from day one. But it was true for me far earlier than that. At 9am on February 28, 1987, I met with Professor Webb in his office. He had agreed to talk to my father and me about choosing an undergraduate college, since I was interested in physics. I was a 17-year-old high school junior from Madison LaFollette. Barney didn’t know either my father or me, and the 28th was a Saturday. None of that mattered, and he was happy to take the time to talk with us. When I joined the faculty years later, I of course remembered that conversation, and so did he.”

Professor Bob Joynt says, “I probably had lunch with Barney 4000 times over 30 years, the last time when he was 92 and still coming in pretty much every day. He was the same age as my father. However, he was not a mentor but a protector. He shielded me every day from everything that is boring in life – he was a person always interested in everything and approached it all with the most lively intellect.  I never remember a moment in his company that was not absorbing and fun.”

Tributes and stories from Barney’s students and colleagues have been compiled here.

Barney’s obituary with Cress Funeral Services can be found at https://www.cressfuneralservice.com/obituary/Maurice-Webb.