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American Physical Society honors three MIT professors for physics research

James Collins, Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, and Richard Milner have won top prizes for their work.
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American Physical Society honorees (left to right): Richard Milner and Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, professors of physics, and James Collins, professor of biological engineering.
American Physical Society honorees (left to right): Richard Milner and Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, professors of physics, and James Collins, professor of biological engineering.

MIT professor of biological engineering James Collins and professors of physics Pablo Jarillo-Herrero and Richard Milner have been awarded top prizes from the American Physical Society.

Jarillo-Herrero, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, received the 2020 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize for the discovery of superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene. Milner has been awarded the 2020 Tom W. Bonner Prize in Nuclear Physics for pioneering work developing and using polarized internal targets in storage rings, and his leadership role in studying the structure of the nucleon in a wide range of electronuclear experiments. Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science, received the 2020 Max Delbruck Prize in Biological Physics “for pioneering contributions at the interface of physics and biology, in particular the establishment of the field of synthetic biology and applications of statistical physics and nonlinear dynamics in biology and medicine.”

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero

When his team of physicists at MIT and collaborators at Harvard University stacked two sheets of atomic-thick carbon (graphene), and twisted them to 1.1 degrees to form what they call “magic-angle graphene,” the sheets exhibited nonconducting behavior, similar to a class of materials known as Mott insulators. And when they applied voltage to this twisted graphene, electrons flowed without resistance, displaying an unconventional superconductivity at 1.7 kelvins.

Graphene is light and flexible, stronger than steel, and more electrically conductive than copper. Jarillo-Herrero believes that this newly discovered superconducting behavior could be used to create a superconductor transistor useful for quantum devices. Since this discovery, he says, “These systems are quickly becoming an ever-growing platform to investigate new physics. By now, many physicists are using other experimental techniques to investigate magic angle graphene and other related systems.”

Although his discovery earned him Physics World’s 2018 Breakthrough of the Year award, receiving this prize from APS so relatively quickly caught him off guard. “Our discovery was published just last year; so, in that sense, getting the Oliver E. Buckley Award this early is very surprising, as it is the most prestigious award worldwide in the field of condensed matter physics,” says Jarillo-Herrero, who also noted that he is the first Spaniard to receive the award, and among the youngest. “I feel truly humbled, both by the recognition and the early stage at which it has come. Having been myself a first-generation college student, I also hope this prize will help encourage young people to pursue careers in physics and quantum materials research."

The Buckley Prize recognizes outstanding theoretical or experimental contributions to condensed matter physics, and includes a $20,000 award. Ten other MIT physicists have received this award, including Xiaogang-Wen (2017), Jagadeesh Moodera, Paul Tedrow and Robert Mersevey (2009), and Mildred Dresselhaus (2008). "I never imagined I would be seeing my name in a list with the distinguished colleagues and friends that got this award earlier,” he said.

Jarillo-Herrero joined MIT in 2008 and was promoted to full professor in 2018. He received his "licenciatura" in physics from the University of Valencia in Spain, in 1999; a master of science degree from the University of California at San Diego in 2001; and his PhD from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, in 2005. 

Richard Milner

Milner’s research group performed a series of experiments carried out over three decades at electron storage rings at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, and at the MIT-owned Bates Research and Engineering Center.

“The scientific focus was to use electron scattering from internal gas targets to gain insight into the origin of spin and charge in the nucleon, as well as to understand fundamental aspects of the quantum mechanics of electron-proton scattering,” says Milner.

Milner’s experimental work with internal polarized targets include the HERMES and Olympus projects at DESY, BLAST at the Bates Lab South Hall Ring, and the Darklight collaboration at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab).

The Bonner Prize recognizes outstanding experimental research in nuclear physics, including the development of a method, technique, or device that significantly contributes in a general way to nuclear physics research, and includes a $10,000 award. 

“Richard is an experimental nuclear physicist who has made contributions to the field at all levels, from the most technical to providing leadership for the nuclear physics community,” physics department head Peter Fisher said in his nomination letter.

Milner was a co-organizer of the Electron Ion Collider (EIC) collaboration that played a key role in the years 2005-10 in developing the EIC science case and in stimulating the involvement of users across the worldwide quantum chromodynamics community. He also has been a longtime proponent for the EIC, which would be the largest accelerator facility in the United States, second only to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The EIC would smash together beams of protons and electrons to provide “snapshots” into the fundamental structure of matter.  

Fisher cited Milner’s leadership in the physics community, such as transitioning the Bates Lab from a national user facility to a research and engineering center to attract companies such as Raytheon and Passport. As former director of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS), he attracted new faculty, and worked with the U.S. Department of Energy on several projects.

Milner credits his physics colleagues Professor Robert Redwine, former director of the Bates Research and Engineering Center, and theoretical Senior Research Scientist T. William Donnelly; and, at LNS, Principal Research Scientist Douglas Hasell and Principal Research Engineer James Kelsey, “with essential contributions vital to the success of the experiments recognized by the Bonner Prize.”

He joined the Department of Physics in 1988, was director of the then-called MIT-Bates Linear Accelerator Center from 1998 to 2006, and served as director of MIT LNS from 2006 to 2015. He is also collaborating on the Arts at MIT’s “Visualizing the Proton” project — a video for middle and high school science students that highlights physicists’ current understanding of the structure of the proton in terms of its fundamental constituents.

James Collins

Formerly known as the Biological Physics Prize, the Delbruck Prize includes $10,000, an allowance for travel to attend the meeting at which the prize is awarded, and a certificate citing the contributions made by the recipient or recipients. It is presented annually.

“Max Delbruck was a world-class physicist whose work on bacteriophages helped to launch the molecular biology revolution,” says Collins. “To be associated with his name for our work in synthetic biology at the interface of biology and physics is a great honor."

His many pioneering contributions at the physics-biology interface include applications of nonlinear dynamics and statistical physics to biological systems at multiple levels, ranging from human balance control to neurosensory function to cardiac dynamics to natural and synthetic gene networks.

“He is an extraordinary physicist, besides being an outstanding engineer and biologist,” says his nominator, Gabor Balazsi, the Henry Laufer Associate Professor at Stony Brook University. “Collins has a unique ability to make fundamental discoveries by cross-disciplinary approaches.”

“Collins' 2000 Nature paper (cited ~4000 times) marks the beginnings of synthetic biology, which is likely to have major impacts on biological physics by deciphering the function of natural gene regulatory networks,” wrote Laufer. “Collins’ radically innovative discoveries and path-blazing work are transforming biological physics, medicine, and the biomedical sciences in many ways that shape the future. His work clearly demonstrates how cutting-edge biological physics research can answer fundamental questions about life, and improve human lives.”

Collins is the senior author of a recent study that uses CRISPR to create novel materials, such as gels, that can change their properties when they encounter specific DNA sequences. This could be used to respond to viral and bacterial outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, and detect cancer. “The scientific possibilities get very exciting very quickly,” Collins said.

Collins is a member of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology faculty. He is also a core founding faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and an Institute Member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Collins' honors include a Rhodes Scholarship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and an NIH Director's Pioneer Award. Collins is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine.

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