Physicist Garners Prestigious CAREER Award for Work on Chaos and Fractals

MERCED, CA— Mention chaos and fractals, and most people think of colorful fractal art calendars or James Gleick's 1988 bestselling book, "Chaos."

The scientific questions touched on by these cultural phenomena are far from exhausted, and one professor at the University of California, Merced, has new funding from the National Science Foundation to help deepen our understanding of the complicated patterns of nature. Professor Kevin Mitchell's CAREER Award — a prestigious grant for young researchers — will support his work on chaos with a total of $400,000 over the next five years.

Mitchell's CAREER Award is groundbreaking as only the second for the fledgling UC Merced campus. (The first was awarded to Professor Mónica Medina last year.) Mitchell has been on board as a faculty member in the School of Natural Sciences since the campus' grand opening.

"Kevin's talent and hard work in mathematical physics certainly merit the recognition he has received from NSF," said Dean Maria Pallavicini of the School of Natural Sciences. "We're very pleased for his success and excited to see one of our own so recognized for pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge."

Mitchell's project, "Chaotic Transport: From Fundamental Theory to Applications in Atomic Physics," proposes using mathematical, theoretical and computer tools to examine how those extremely complex patterns might manifest in diverse systems.

"Chaos is actually sort of a misleading term for what we study, because it makes people think it's impossible to understand," Mitchell said. "Actually there's lots of structure in chaotic systems, beautiful structure. We just need to use the right tools to understand it."

He and his colleagues have studied the behavior of a hydrogen atom — the simplest of atoms — when it is placed in magnetic and electric fields. The magnetic field alters the otherwise-simple orbit of the atom's single electron, introducing chaos into the system. The trajectories of the electrons in this system can be predicted using complicated fractal patterns, which Mitchell seeks to understand more deeply.

He will also work with a graduate student studying the chaotic behavior of a hydrogen atom when it is subjected to a regular sequence of kicks — such as can be applied by a pulsed electric field.

A third application varies from the hydrogen-atom model in that it involves study of the motion of entire atoms (not just their electrons) in extremely cold environments. The 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the researchers who achieved this super-cold state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate, in the laboratory. Mitchell and his colleagues theorize that small packets of ultra-cold atoms inside an atomic trap should exhibit chaotic motion analogous to that displayed by the electrons of the hydrogen atoms he is studying in his other two systems.

"This project really spans the range of my interests," Mitchell said. "It makes the links between mathematical physics and fundamental mathematical theory to applications in experimental systems."

He said it's gratifying for a theoretical physicist like himself to see those connections.

His proposal to NSF also included an educational component — a requirement from the CAREER program that encourages scientists to ensure that their work serves the public as well as the academic community. Mitchell plans an outreach program leveraging UC Merced's K-12 education contacts through California Teach and the Science and Math Initiative as well as his relationship with the Higher Education Consortium of Central California.

"We'll coordinate visits by grad students, professional physicists and faculty like me to high school classrooms, sharing with students in the Central Valley that physics is not just something you have to get through in high school — it's a field with career potential, something that real people do," he said.

He also hopes to draw groups of students to visit UC Merced for events like Research Week, coming up in early March this year.

"My goal is to widen the pipeline for Valley students coming to UC Merced," he said. "I hope that personal contact makes the difference to encourage them to pursue a career in science."

Mitchell noted that the process he underwent to receive this award was extremely competitive.

"Like a lot of junior faculty members, I've been working hard to bring in funding," he said. "I feel fortunate to have been successful this time. There are a lot of very talented researchers at UC Merced, and as a group we are becoming increasingly successful at bringing in major grants of this nature."

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