The pleasure of discovery

June 22, 2012 5:45 AM

Nick Marinello

Are physicists like the rest of us? Recently, New Wave caught up with physics professor John Perdew to pose a few questions about his life and work. Last year, he was elected a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. He is a leader in the development of density functional theory, which is now widely used in many fields to calculate fundamental properties of materials.

John Perdew

“Saying that I’m a physicist can stop the conversation dead in its tracks. Maybe I should say that I’m an explorer …” says physics professor John Perdew. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Who were your childhood heroes?

Thomas Jefferson as a historical figure, and later Euclid as a mathematician.

What is your earliest recollection of being interested in science?

My father was a biology teacher. He used to bring home strange and interesting animals. In high school, I liked geometry, because I could prove the theorem and see it intuitively at the same time. It wasn’t until college that I learned that I liked physics better.

If you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks about your research, what do you reply?

Saying that I'm a physicist can stop the conversation dead in its tracks. Maybe I should say that I'm an explorer, which is also true in a way. I’m exploring how to use the electron density to predict on the computer what atoms, molecules and solids can exist, and with what properties.

What do physicists know that others don’t?

They know physics — or at least their own patch of it — better than others. And they know what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”

What do you wish you knew, but don’t?

Lots of things, but most specifically I’d like to know how to include nonlocal or long-range effects into density functional approximations, accurately and starting from the principles of quantum mechanics, without fitting parameters to data.

How far can physics take us?

Far, but maybe not all the way.



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