IU nuclear physicist receives NSF's top award for junior faculty

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Studying the Big Bang with 'little bangs,' IU physicist earns NSF's highest honor for young faculty

Jinfeng Liao studies 4 trillion-degree-Celsius particle collisions

  • April 22, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A theoretical nuclear physicist in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award in support of junior faculty. Jinfeng Liao, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, will receive $440,000 from the CAREER Award to continue exploring new states of matter under extreme conditions.

For Liao, those extreme conditions result from heavy ion collisions that produce the hottest temperatures ever created in a laboratory -- about 4 trillion degrees Celsius, or 250,000 times hotter than the Sun -- to study quark-gluon plasma, the primordial soup that briefly occupied the universe a few microseconds after the Big Bang. These collision experiments are now performed at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in U.S. and the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, providing a unique “time machine” to trace back the very early moments of our universe.

“You could say I study 'little bangs,'" Liao said of the recreations that deconfine the quarks and gluons that make up ordinary nuclear matter composed of protons and neutrons. “Research suggests that quark-gluon matter strongly interacts both before and after reaching thermal equilibrium in such collisions, and we want to know how such phenomena arise.

Nuclei of ordinary nuclear matter and quark-gluon plasma represent two distinctive phases of matter whose constituent parts interact with the same type of fundamental forces, described by the theory of quantum chromodynamics, or QCD.

“But how such strongly interacting nature arises in the many-body setting from the fundamental QCD theory is a challenging problem that lacks a deep understanding,” Liao said.

The new funding will allow Liao to investigate this missing link and seek to develop effective descriptions of the “extreme matter” both in and out of equilibrium. He said such studies of the interactions between the smallest known components of the atomic nucleus and how they get bound into varied phases of matter could have a profound impact on other areas of physics, including cosmology, supernova, compact stars, supersymmetric theories, string theories and condensed matter physics.

“Hopefully the results will advance our understanding of QCD confinement, provide fresh insights into jet quenching mechanisms, make significant progress in search of QCD topological effects, and reduce existing uncertainties on the pre-thermal stage,” he said. “And the expected outcome will help answering fundamental questions such as how the experimentally observed properties of the quark-gluon matter in and out of equilibrium emerge from QCD".

Liao, who is also a RIKEN Physicist Fellow at Brookhaven National Laboratory, came to IU in 2011 after working as a research associate at Brookhaven and as a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear theory from Stony Brook University and earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics from Tsinghua University, Beijing.

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