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Physicist Garners Prestigious CAREER Award for Work on Chaos and Fractals

February 12, 2008

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.”