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Behavior of fundamental particles
is focus of Dunne's research
February 8, 1999
Two years ago a technical paradox had eluded theoretical physicist Gerald V. Dunne for several months. Then, during a morning walk to campus, he realized the answer. "It was something short and simple instead of the contrived solutions that people had been proposing for over 10 years," recalls the associate professor of physics.
That night he worked out the equation, pleased with its elegance (in the parlance of physicists, elegant is the opposite of contrived). Afterwards, he felt little urge to sleep. "Normally the most efficient thing to do is to sleep and see if it's right in the morning," says Dunne.
He knew the equation was right and he was waiting for a decent hour to share the news with his wife and two physicists with whom he was collaborating.
The satisfaction of putting together the parts of such a puzzle goes to the heart of what drives the young Australian physicist, one of this year's recipients of a Chancellor's Research Excellence Award.
"My main motivation is curiosity," says Dunne of the theoretical problems he attempts to solve. "You never know in advance what is going to turn out to be truly significant; it's really a gut feeling."
Dunne's expertise is in gauge field theory. This is a branch of quantum field theory, a theoretical framework for describing the fundamental forces of physics, such as the dynamics of natural light, or any form of radiation, even radio waves.
Much of Dunne's recent research has been in low-dimensional field theory. The surprising thing about low-dimensional field theory, he says, is that if we take fundamental particles such as electrons (one of several elementary particles that make up atoms and molecules) or quarks (elementary particles that make up nuclear matter), and confine them to a two-dimensional plane, they behave completely differently from the way they do when confined in a three-
This field of study has already had important technological applications, particularly for
certain solid state electronic devices.
One way to explain low-dimensional field theory, Dunne says, is to think of two halves of an Oreo cookie trapping an extremely thin layer of icing between them. Consider each cookie half as a semi-conductor - a standard component of electrical devices. And think of the icing as a layer of trillions of electrons. In this situation, electrons react completely differently from the way they would if trapped in a three-dimensional volume, like a cookie jar.
Normally two electrons repel each other. "Yet," explains Dunne, "these trapped electrons form collective blobs, each of which
behaves like an individual entity." Similar collective phenomena have been observed with atoms and nuclei. "There are many different reasons why these things form," he says. "It's one of my deep interests to understand this leap from the interactions of a few particles to large numbers of particles."
Dunne's impressive research, combined with his teaching abilities, led UConn to recruit him in 1992 from MIT where he was an instructor, says William C. Stwalley, professor and chair of the physics department. Most of the UConn theoreticians at that time were much older than Dunne, who recently turned 35. "He brought a new
expertise," notes Stwalley.
In 1996, Dunne was awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor. "He not only had outstanding research but outstanding teaching and faculty evaluations," says Stwalley. Dunne's book, Self-Dual Chern-Simons Theories, had already become a standard reference. He had given plenary talks at prestigious international conferences. And his external recommendations were from distinguished scientists.
"Everybody who has heard him lecture says he's extremely clear and comfortable explaining complex topics," says Stwalley. "It's a real gift to be able to do that."
Dunne finds his teaching and his research complement each other. He sometimes brings what he is working on into the classroom - "if it's appropriate," he emphasizes.
Like many scientists, Dunne did his share of dismantling radios and blowing up chemistry sets while growing up. Had he taken the advice of his Adelaide high school teacher to attend art school because of his talent as a sculptor and draftsman, he would have followed a completely different career path. But his interest in science prevailed.
Dunne headed to university, where he studied math and physics. After earning his doctorate from Imperial College in London, he spent the next four years at MIT, initially as a postdoctoral researcher.
It was at MIT that he first began to work on low-dimensional field theory. It was still a relatively new area of physics and Dunne quickly became fascinated with it.
"One of the holy grails of theoretical physics," he says, "is to understand how to go from fundamental interactions among a small number of objects, to complex, collective interactions among very many objects."
Dunne, no doubt, will continue searching.