How Does Nature Handle Disorder?

WPI Professor Wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award to Explore Fundamental Physics Questions

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WORCESTER, Mass. -- To support his work exploring the changes that result from bringing disorder into Nature, Germano Iannacchione of Waltham Mass., assistant professor of physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

The NSF's most prestigious honor for junior faculty, the award is part of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Program, which encourages the growth of young faculty members as educators and researchers. Over the past six years, WPI faculty members have received 10 CAREER awards. Three faculty members have received NSF Presidential Young Investigator and NSF Young Investigator awards, which preceded the CAREER Award Program.

Through the CAREER Award, Iannacchione will receive $94,100 in the first year and a total of $499,683 over five years to support his research project, "Random Disorder in Phase Transitions of Complex Fluids." He will undertake a systematic research survey of the changes that liquid crystals and special polymers undergo when non-related materials are introduced into their environment.

While physicists have worked hard to understand ideal systems, Iannacchione wants to find out what happens to those systems when disorder enters the scene. "If disorder is random, that's when things get interesting," he says. "What are the rules Nature obeys when you have random disorder?"

Randomness can have important roles. He uses as an analogy the difficulty people can have getting to sleep with the regular rhythm and sounds of a radio in the background, compared with lulling effects of "white noise"-- randomly selected sounds at every frequency (like the sound of rain on the roof).

His high-resolution heat capacity (calorimetry) experiments explore the character of transitions from one phase to another (for example, from liquid to sold) in various materials. In particular, his research has focused on liquid crystals and polymers. He has found that certain types of disorder will always destroy Nature's order, while for other types, Nature can still maintain order in surprisingly different ways. He is also developing a powerful new spectroscopic technique in calorimetry that will be useful for studying a wide range of systems.

Ultimately, he says, his research asks questions about the collective behavior of the universe and how it organizes itself despite our expectations when randomness is present.

Iannacchione is a graduate of Kent State University, where he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1993 after four years as a research assistant there. He earned both B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics at the University of Akron. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in physics at Kent State for two years, and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemistry and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1996 to 1998. Since 1998, he has been an assistant professor in WPI's Physics Department.

Founded in 1865 and known for its unique, outcomes-oriented approach to education, WPI offers undergraduate and graduate programs in engineering, science, the liberal arts and the management of technology.

Download a hi-res photo of Professor Iannacchione (shown above)