Undergraduate Physics Program Chosen Best in U.S.

Date: 10/3/05
Contact: Marc Lebovitz

The best undergraduate physics research program in the United States is at Illinois State University.

That is the opinion of the American Physical Society (APS), which has named Illinois State’s Distinguished Professor Rainer Grobe and Professor Q. Charles Su of the ISU Department of Physics as recipients of the 2006 APS Undergraduate Research Prize. The award cites “their outstanding effort at creating a successful and renowned optical theory program at Illinois State University, and for their exemplary involvement of undergraduates in this research.”

Since 1986, this highly prestigious award is given annually to only one institution and includes a $5,000 stipend to the recipients and a $5,000 unrestricted grant for research in Physics at Illinois State. Grobe and Su are invited to the APS awards ceremony in Baltimore in March to receive their award from American Physical Society President Marvin Cohen.

Grobe and Su are pleased that the APS award is another national recognition for the Intense Laser Physics Theory Unit, which they co-direct. The Unit has been supported by the National Science Foundation since 1996. Thirty-five Physics students have delivered about 150 talks at various conferences, and the Intense Laser Physics Theory Unit has published more than 120 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals that were cited in more than 2,000 articles.

Recently, the center has resolved one of the outstanding problems in theoretical physics, the Klein paradox, with the help of computer simulations. An article by Su, Grobe and research associate Piotr Krekora titled “Klein Paradox in Spatial and Temporal Resolution” was heralded last year as “an important advance in the understanding of the physical process” by one of the article’s referees. It was published by The Physical Review Letters, the most prestigious journal in physics. Another referee wrote that this research “could be a standard reference with the result finding its way into quantum mechanics textbooks.”

The Klein Paradox has been a conceptual mystery in theoretical physics for more than 75 years, named for Swedish scientist Oskar Klein, one of the top theoretical physicists of the 20th century. The question revolves around understanding how very energetic electrons can bounce off a very strong electrostatic barrier. Although relativistic quantum mechanics predicts the occurrence of a new particle-like object, no one could correctly interpret the occurrence until the ILP computer simulations accomplished it.