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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Innovation and Achievement in Theoretical Physics: Leo Kadanoff's Newton Lecture

Professor Leo Kadanoff, winner of the 2011 Isaac Newton Medal, gave this lecture on Friday 13 January at the Institute of Physics (IOP) in London just one day before his 75th birthday..

The Isaac Newton Medal, which was established in 2008 and is the Institute’s most prestigious award, was given to Professor Kadanoff in 2011 for inventing conceptual tools that reveal the deep implications of scale invariance on the behaviour of phase transitions and dynamical systems.

As Professor Kadanoff explains, “In 1965-71, a group of people, myself included, formulated and perfected a new approach to physics problems, under the names of scaling, universality and renormalization.

“This work became the basis of a wide variety of theories ranging from particle physics and relativity, through condensed matter physics, and into economics and biology.”

He says, “This work [on scaling, universality and renormalization] was of transcendental beauty and of considerable intellectual importance but it left me with a personal problem. What next? Constructing the answer to that question would dominate the next 45 years of my professional life.”

In his lecture, Professor Kadanoff explains how he conceptualises his own work pattern – by breaking his work up into three parts – to ensure the greatest scientific benefits.

Professor Kadanoff describes these three parts as, firstly, helping to broaden the definition of physics by working at the boundaries of the subject; secondly, ensuring that physics knowledge is used to inform discussion of the major problems of our day; and, lastly, helping colleagues via critical assessment of their work to aid advancement.

In these three endeavours, Professor Kadanoff’s work has influenced urban growth, intelligent design, large-scale computer simulations, superconductivity, redefining how models can be used in condensed matter physics, and disorder, turbulence and chaos in physical systems.

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