Whether they are describing the physics of how multicellular groups form from individual living cells, assembling the building blocks for quantum computing and quantum engineering, or investigating how massive elements came into being after our universe’s beginning, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) newest Physics Frontiers Center awardees represent the leading edge of physics research. Today, the agency’s physics division announced awards for five Physics Frontiers Centers–four of which are renewals. NSF now has a total of 10 of these active centers that focus on various aspects of physics.
“The Physics Frontiers Centers truly are unique environments for both research and education,” said Jean Cottam Allen, NSF program director for the Physics Frontiers Centers. “We’re excited about these new awards and look forward to the great impacts these groups will have.”
The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, based out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and West Virginia University, is NSF’s newest Physics Frontiers Center. The four centers renewed with new focuses and activities include the Center for the Physics of Living Cells at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University, the Physics Frontier Center at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics – Center for the Evolution of the Elements, which has four core institutions at Michigan State University, the University of Notre Dame, Arizona State University and the University of Washington.
The overarching Physics Frontiers Centers (PFC) program supports university-based centers and institutes where the collective efforts of a larger group of individuals can result in transformational advances in specific areas of physics, such as atomic, molecular, optical, plasma, elementary particle, nuclear, astrophysical, gravitational, accelerator and biological physics.
Multidisciplinary projects involving related fields can also take place in these collaborative environments. Additionally, the centers include creative, substantive activities aimed at enhancing education, broadening participation of traditionally underrepresented groups and conducting outreach to the scientific community and general public.
These awards are made for five years with a potential one-year extension. Open competitions are held every three years. Here is more information about this year’s awardees:
North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav): NANOGrav will focus on detecting and characterizing gravitational waves, which are ripples in spacetime predicted by the theory of general relativity. The center will look for gravitational waves with nanohertz frequencies–frequencies much lower (11 orders of magnitude lower) than those probed by NSF’s Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). NANOGrav will observe and correlate signals of millisecond pulsars (pulsating neutron stars). This PFC will also interact with middle-school, high-school and undergraduate students, engaging them in data collection and analysis along with public lecture programs.
Center for the Physics of Living Cells (CPLC): This PFC seeks to uncover the physical principles operating in complex living systems. It will look at biophysical phenomena using experimental techniques at molecular, cellular and multicellular levels and aim to enhance the accuracy and detail in theoretical and computational research. CPLC holds outreach and education programs for the public, students of all levels and teachers involving such activities as seminars, curriculum development and training in pedagogy.
Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP): CTBP will craft a theoretical physics framework for cells and groups of cells. To do this, the center will combine statistical physics with biological information such as how living systems organize themselves. It will interact with local medical institutions, the University of Houston and surrounding communities, where it will serve as a focal point for theoretical biological physics. By hosting a visiting scholars program, running workshops and coordinating student networks, CTBP will share its expertise with the biological physics community and help encourage greater participation in this research.
Physics Frontier Center at the Joint Quantum Institute (PFC@JQI): Advances in atomic, molecular, optical and condensed matter physics are allowing scientists to go beyond observing and measuring quantum systems to now explore engineering of these systems. PFC@JQI will investigate the control of quantum systems by building materials with specific quantum properties and exploiting these systems to investigate new areas of the quantum realm. The center will also hold programs engaging the general public and all levels of education, including an intensive hands-on summer physics program for high school students.
Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics–Center for the Evolution of the Elements (JINA-CEE): The four core institutions of JINA-CEE, along with their 18 associated domestic institutions and partnerships with other international centers, bring together nuclear physics and astrophysics for theoretical, computational and laboratory investigations. JINA-CEE will explore two closely connected topics: the origin of the elements beyond those created in the Big Bang and the properties of dense matter in neutron stars. This PFC will use interdisciplinary visitor, school and workshop programs to engage K-12, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers and the public.
These centers join five other PFCs that are midway through their multi-year awards. They include: the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, the JILA Physics Frontiers Center, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and the Center for Ultracold Atoms. More information about NSF Physics Frontiers Centers is available online.