Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
Ben Woods and team named finalists in 2023 WARF Innovation Awards
Each fall the WARF Innovation Awards recognize some of the best inventions at UW–Madison. WARF receives hundreds of new invention disclosures each year. Of these disclosures, the WARF Innovation Award finalists are considered exceptional in the following criteria:
Has potential for high long-term impact
Presents an exciting solution to a known important problem
Could produce broad benefits for humankind
One of the six finalists comes from Physics. Research Associate Benjamin Woods and a team including Distinguished Scientist Mark Friesen, John Bardeen Prof. of Physics Mark Eriksson, Honorary Associate Robert Joynt, and Graduate Student Emily Joseph developed a quantum device that shows a significant increase in valley splitting, a key property needed for error-free quantum computing. The device features a novel structural composition that turns conventional wisdom on its head.
Two winners, selected from the six finalists, will be announced in WARF’s annual holiday greeting; sign up to receive the greeting here. Each of the two Innovation Award winners receive $10,000, split among UW inventors.
To better understand the nature of dark energy, she uses machine learning to search Dark Energy Survey cosmology data for evidence of strong gravitational lensing — where a heavy foreground galaxy bends the light of another galaxy, producing multiple images of it that can get so distorted that they appear as long arcs of light around the large galaxy in telescope images. She also focuses on finding very rare cases of strong gravitational lensing in which two galaxies are lensed by the same foreground galaxy, systems known as double-source-plane lenses.
First, she had to create simulations of the galaxy systems. Next, she used those simulations to train the machine learning model to identify the systems in the heaps and heaps of DES data. Lastly, she would apply the trained model to the real DES data. All told, she expected to find hundreds of “simple” strong gravitational lenses and only a few double-source-plane lenses out of 230 million images.
“But, for example, when I did the search the first time, I mostly only got spiral galaxies, so then I had to include spiral galaxies in my training,” says González, a physics graduate student in Keith Bechtol’s group.
The initial steps took around two weeks (hence the waiting) before she could even know what needed to be changed to better train the model. Once she had the model trained and would be ready to apply it to the entire dataset, she estimated it would take five to six years just to find the images of interest — and then she would finally be able to study the systems found.
Then, the email from the Open Science Grid (OSG) Consortium came. The OSG Consortium operates a fabric of distributed High Throughput Computing (dHTC) services, allowing users to take advantage of massive amounts of computing power. Researchers can apply to the OSG User School, an annual workshop for scientists who want to learn and use dHTC methods.
“[dHTC] is parallelizing things. It’s like if you had 500 exams to grade, you can distribute them among different people and it would take less time,” González says. “It sounded perfect for me.”
González applied and was accepted into the 2021 program, which was run virtually that year. At the OSG User School, she learned methods that would allow her to take advantage of dHTC and apply them to her work. Her multi-year processing time was cut down to mere days.
“Because it was so fast, there were many new things that I could implement in my research,” González says. “A lot of the methodology I implemented would not have been possible without OSG.”
David Swanson was a longtime champion of and contributor to OSG, who passed away in 2016. In his memory, the award is bestowed annually upon one or more former students of the OSG User School who have subsequently achieved significant dHTC-enabled research outcomes.
She accepted the award at the Throughput Computing 2023 conference, where she presented her research and discussed how she used her training from the OSG User School to successfully comb through the DES data and find the systems of interest.
“When I got the award, I didn’t know anything about [Swanson],” González says. “But once I attended this event, I heard so many people talking about him, and I understood why it was created. It is such an honor to receive this award in his name.”
Lu Lu receives 2023 IUPAP Early Career Scientist Prize
IceCube collaborator and UW–Madison assistant professor of physics Lu Lu received a 2023 International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Early Career Scientist Prize “for her contributions to the development of high energy neutrino astronomy in the PeV energy region.” Lu accepted the award on July 27 during the opening ceremony at the 38th International Cosmic Ray Conference (ICRC) held in Nagoya, Japan.
Early Career Scientist Prizes are given to early career scientists within each IUPAP commission who have up to eight years of postdoctoral research experience and have made significant contributions to the cosmic ray field. Lu is a recipient of the Early Career Scientist Prize in the Commission on Astroparticle Physics (C4).
Her PhD work focused on developing a novel technique to search for ultra-high-energy photons using data from the Pierre Auger Observatory. She also played a leading role in the initial design of the “Dual optical sensors in an Ellipsoid Glass for Gen2” (D-Egg), a two-PMT optical module for the IceCube Upgrade.
Lu is currently an assistant professor of physics at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current research focuses on diffuse high-energy astrophysical/cosmogenic neutrinos from TeV to EeV, Galactic PeVatron detection in the context of multimessenger observations, and the exploration of potential transient ultra-high-energy sources.
She is actively involved in IceCube outreach initiatives and has pioneered the development of an app that provides IceCube real-time alerts via augmented reality on mobile devices. Currently, she serves as co-lead of the diffuse science working group in IceCube and is one of three representatives of the physical science group of US-SCAR (Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research).
“I would like to express my deep appreciation for my collaborators and for those who work on foundational tasks such as reconstructions and calibrations, as their efforts behind the scenes make groundbreaking discoveries possible,” said Lu. “As early career scientists, we bear the responsibility of continuing and expanding experiments in the particle astrophysics field. We must collaborate and work together to ensure that the next generation of young scientists will have exciting discoveries to make.”
The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, India, have awarded the 2021 Homi Bhabha Medal and Prize to Francis Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and principal investigator of IceCube, for his “distinguished contributions in the field of high-energy cosmic-ray physics and astroparticle physics over an extended academic career.” Halzen accepted the award at the opening session of the virtual 37th International Cosmic Ray Conference, on July 12, 2021.
The Bhabha Award was established by IUPAP and TIFR in 2010 to honor Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a cosmic ray physicist well known for the Bhabha-Heitler cascade theory and relativistic positron-electron scattering, also known as Bhabha scattering. Bhabha founded TIFR in 1945 and initiated the nuclear energy program in India in 1951. He initiated experimental programs for the study of cosmic ray particles and their interactions with instruments either carried aloft to the top of the atmosphere with balloons or placed in laboratories at high altitude or deep underground. The Homi Bhabha Medal and Prize consists of a certificate, a medal, a monetary award, and an invitation to visit the TIFR, Mumbai, and the Cosmic Ray Laboratory, Ooty to give public lectures. It is awarded biennially at the International Cosmic Ray Conference.
Born in Belgium, Halzen received his Master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Louvain, Belgium, and has been on the physics faculty at UW–Madison since 1972. The Bhabha Award is just the latest in Halzen’s long and storied career; previous accolades include a 2014 American Ingenuity Award, the 2015 Balzan Prize, a 2018 Bruno Pontecorvo Prize, the 2019 IUPAP Yodh Prize, and the 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize. Halzen is the third IceCube collaborator to win a Bhabha Award after Tom Gaisser in 2015 and Subir Sarkar in 2017.
During his virtual acceptance remarks, Halzen credited his collaborators, saying, “If I made contributions, it is because I ran into incredible collaborators who were leaders in the field, and still are. My ultimate collaborators, of course, I found within the AMANDA collaboration—and now IceCube—who made high-energy neutrinos part of the high-energy cosmic ray spectrum…
“Thanks to everybody, and thanks to IceCube; this prize is shared with all of you.”
Ke Fang, professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been selected as the recipient of the 2021 Shakti P. Duggal Award presented by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).
The Duggal Award was established after cosmic-ray physicist Shakti Duggal’s untimely death in 1982. In honor of Shakti’s long association with cosmic ray physics and his many contributions to the field during his career, his namesake award is given biennially “to recognize an outstanding young scientist for contributions in any branch of cosmic ray physics.” The first Shakti P. Duggal Award was presented at the 19th International Cosmic Ray Conference at La Jolla in 1985. Previous Duggal Award winners have all achieved recognition and prominence in their careers.
Award winners receive a monetary award and, since 1991, an invitation to visit the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, where Shakti Duggal worked, to present a colloquium and discuss their work.
Fang’s research focuses on understanding the universe through its energetic messengers, including ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, gamma rays, and high-energy neutrinos. She runs numerical simulations to study theories of astroparticle sources and analyzes data from HAWC, Fermi-LAT, and IceCube. She joined WIPAC and the UW–Madison Physics Department as an assistant professor on January 1, 2021. You can learn more about Fang and her research in this Q&A.
“I am very grateful for this special honor,” said Fang. “As a young researcher, I have received enormous support from my mentors and collaborators, to whom the award truly belongs. I look forward to continuing working on and contributing to cosmic ray physics as a member of the Duggal family.”
Yang Bai promoted to full professor
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!
Ellen Zweibel elected to the National Academy of Sciences
Astronomy and physics Professor Ellen Zweibel has been honored with membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
Zweibel is among 120 new members — and one of 59 women, the largest group ever — elected to the academy, one of the highest honors that can be conferred on an American scientist. Members are chosen “in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.”
Zweibel, the W.L. Kraushaar Professor of Astronomy and Physics, came to UW–Madison in 2003. She studies the way magnetic fields shape the universe, including the physics of plasmas in stars and galaxies and the cosmic rays they throw out into the universe.
A founding member of the Center for Magnetic Self-Organization, a Physics Frontier Center funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, Zweibel won the American Physical Society’s Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics in 2016.
The National Academy of Sciences — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations. It is a private, nonprofit institution established in 1863 under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Three University of Wisconsin–Madison students, including junior Physics and Math major Gage Siebert, have been named 2021 winners of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, considered the country’s preeminent undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.
As a freshman, Siebert studied the origins of life in Professor David Baum’s lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Siebert then interned at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, studying the radio emission from several of the millisecond pulsars used in the search for gravitational waves. He later presented this work at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. For the past two years, Siebert has worked in Professor Peter Timbie’s observational cosmology lab on the Tianlai Array, a radio astronomy experiment built to map hydrogen. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.
More than 1,250 students were nominated this year from 438 academic institutions; 410 were named Goldwater Scholars. The scholarship program honors the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and was designed to develop highly qualified scientists, engineers and mathematicians. The scholarships were first awarded in 1989. Each scholar will receive up to $7,500 for their senior year of undergraduate study.
University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor Victor Brar has been named a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow, a competitive award given to researchers in the early stages of their careers.
“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a Fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”
Brar’s research focuses on developing new microscopy techniques to look at quantum systems in ways that current microscopes cannot. Applying these techniques to study defects in materials — where a perfect crystal lattice is disrupted by one or more anomalous atoms — could lead to improvements in quantum computer performance or the discovery of new Physics.
“Everyone in the world is trying to make a quantum computer, but we don’t really have good diagnostics for what all the quantum systems are inside of a material,” Brar says. “One goal with this microscope is to figure out what’s in a material that could interfere with a quantum computer.”
Additionally, Brar hopes that by applying this technique to complex materials, new particles may be identified and studied. For example, many particle physics discoveries, such as the Higgs boson and the positron, have been first theorized based on materials science research and repurposed into high energy physics experiments.
“At CERN, for example, they try to get to higher and higher energies to see particles, and at some point CERN just can’t get high enough,” Brar explains. “But in a material, you can get analogous particles for what CERN scientists are looking for but at much lower energies. There are particles that we’ve never seen outside of a material, but we can see them in a material, and those are the kinds of things that we’d ideally like to study.”
The technique that Brar is developing combines optical and electron microscopy, two methods he worked on as a graduate student and post-doc. By bringing them together now, he hopes that his unique method will bring significant advances to his field — and that the Sloan Fellowship indicates that other scientists agree.
“The Sloan award has a history behind it, and they have a track record of funding good science,” Brar says. “So, it means a lot to be recognized by Sloan and I hope it will help when we start to try to make our case for why this method is important.”
The Sloan Research Fellowship is open to early-career scientists in one of eight fields, including physics. More than 1000 researchers are nominated each year for 128 fellowship slots. Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship which can be spent to advance the fellow’s research.
“Prof. Victor Brar winning the Sloan Foundation Fellowship is a very welcome recognition,” says Sridhara Dasu, chair of the UW–Madison physics department. “For decades now, the Sloan Fellowship is a highly sought-after honor amongst young scientists, and it is wonderful to note that our enthusiasm and confidence in Prof. Brar’s research prowess is recognized by an international panel selecting the Sloan Fellows.”
IceCube Collaboration awarded 2021 Rossi Prize
The 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize was awarded to Francis Halzen and the IceCube Collaboration “for the discovery of a high-energy neutrino flux of astrophysical origin.”
The Bruno Rossi Prize is awarded annually by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society. The 2021 HEAD awards were announced last night at the 237th AAS Meeting, which is being held virtually. Named after Italian experimental physicist Bruno Rossi—who made major contributions to particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, launched the field of X-ray astronomy, and discovered the first X-ray source, SCO X-1—the Rossi Prize is awarded “for a significant contribution to High Energy Astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent, original work.”
The IceCube Collaboration is made up of over 300 researchers from 12 institutions in 53 countries. Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is the principal investigator of IceCube. The international group maintains and operates the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic kilometer of ice at the South Pole instrumented with optical sensors that can detect signals from high-energy neutrinos from outer space.