The University of Chicago News Office
March 14, 2002 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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University of Chicago scientist to receive 2002 Polymer Physics Prize

The University of Chicago’s Thomas Witten will receive the 2002 Polymer Physics Prize, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, at the American Physical Society meeting March 18 in Indianapolis. The society is citing Witten, a Professor in Physics, “for outstanding theoretical contributions to the understanding of polymers and complex fluids.”

“Tom Witten has had a far-reaching impact on the entire field of polymers, complex fluids and aggregation phenomena,” said Sidney Nagel, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at the University of Chicago. “His work has been characterized by a very original approach combined with a thorough and deep analysis of the problems on which he works.”

Polymers, complex fluids and aggregation phenomena sound esoteric, but in fact they are often the stuff of everyday life. In recent decades they have forced physicists to broaden their notion of how matter behaves, Witten said.

Scientifically speaking, polymers are substances that consist of long, flexible chains of identical molecules. Practically speaking, they are found in virtually every household. Styrofoam, from which plastic cups are made, is a common example of a synthetic polymer. But polymers also occur naturally and are a common feature of living cells.

Unlike simple fluids such as water and gasoline, complex fluids flow in a springy, syrupy way because they contain large, floppy objects that deform and store energy in a flow. Often these objects are polymers. Examples of such complex fluids are mucus, paint and toothpaste.

The aggregation phenomena that Witten studies occur when falling snowflakes clump together, or when carbon-black soot builds up near a dirty flame. Carbon black is made industrially and is used in the manufacture of tires to make them strong, Witten said.

Witten has contributed to the physics of polymers, complex fluids and aggregation phenomena by more rigorously describing their behavior mathematically, leading scientists to new levels of understanding.

Witten’s interest in mathematical tools called fractals led him to his theoretical studies of polymer physics. “It amazed me to learn that the mysterious mathematical symmetry of a fractal governs the behavior of many pervasive forms of soft matter, such as polymers,” Witten said.
Last modified at 12:27 PM CST on Thursday, March 14, 2002.

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