27 November 2020

Paul J. Steinhardt is awarded the Niels Bohr Institute Medal of Honour 2020

Medal of Honour:

Established in 2010 to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Niels Bohr, the Niels Bohr Institute Medal of Honor is awarded every year to a particularly outstanding scientist working in the spirit of Niels Bohr. This year the medal is awarded to Paul J. Steinhardt for his seminal and creative contributions to a remarkably wide range of subjects within the natural sciences, for his tireless advocacy of the unity of sciences, for his critical reconsideration of every scientific hypothesis that is not backed by experimental evidence, and for his remarkable skills of conveying to the public the excitement of scientific discovery.

Paul J. Steinhardt
The Niels Bohr Institute's Medal of Honor 2020 is awarded to Paul J. Steinhardt, professor at Princeton University, here together with Vice Chancellor for Research David Dreyer Lassen.

Education and research career

Paul Steinhardt is Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University where he is on the faculty of both the Department of Physics and the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. He received his BSc from Caltech in 1974 and his PhD in Physics from Harvard University in 1978.

He was Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows until 1981 and he was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania from 1981 to 1998, at which point he accepted a Professorship at Princeton University. Paul Steinhardt was founding Director of Princeton's Center for Theoretical Science 2007-2019.

Throughout  his  education  and  subsequent  research career,  Paul Steinhardt  has succeeded in making seminal contributions to remarkably diverse areas of science: from the theory of glasses and other amorphous materials (already while an undergraduate at Caltech) to the introduction  of  the  notion  of orientational order parameters  in describing partial alignments of atoms in liquids (while a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows).

His PhD-thesis was on lattice gauge theory, but he soon turned to  particle  physics  problems  with  impact  on  early Universe cosmology,  where  he quickly became a leading and influential figure. He is renowned for his seminal contributions to the early developments of theory  of  Inflation, and has more recently spearheaded alternative ideas in terms of so-called bouncing or cyclic cosmologies.

Paul J. Steinhardt
Paul J. Steinhardt at Niels Bohr's desk at the Niels Bohr Institute at Blegdamsvej. The study is as it was when Bohr died in 1962.

Theory of Inflation and Quasicrystals  

While being on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, and while developing the theory of Inflation, Paul Steinhardt was also a frequent visitor at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center of IBM, working on entirely different topics in condensed matter physics.

Indeed, and most remarkably, Paul  Steinhardt  is  also  well  known for seminal contributions in  a completely different branch of science. Partly in connection with his visits to IBM, he  came  up  with the idea  of  quasicrystals  (a  word  coined  by  him and  the subject of a recent book written by him).

Paul Steinhardt, together with Dov Levine, proposed a  potentially  new  order  in  real  materials,  a  three-dimensional generalization of Penrose tiles with only quasi-periodicity, which was later found to exist in  Nature.

The story of quasicrystals is particularly fascinating. Always insisting on theories passing tests and closest scrutiny, Paul Steinhardt organized a field trip in 2011 to "the middle of nowhere" in the Kamchatka Peninsula in order check if quasicrystals could have been produced in Nature (earlier examples were artificial in the sense that they were produced in the lab).

The successful outcome of the trip and the whole quest to confirm the physical reality of quasicrystals has been wonderfully described by Paul Steinhardt in his recent book The Second Kind of Impossible.

Paul Steinhardt currently devotes most of his research efforts to cosmology where he is a leading figure. Often a visitor to the Niels Bohr Institute, Paul Steinhardt has served for a number of years as a very active and influential member of the International Science Advisory Board of Niels Bohr International Academy.


Poul Henrik Damgaard, Professor
Email: phdamg@nbi.ku.dk 
Phone: +45 35 32 53 76


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