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    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  Aug 22, 2017
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Rensselaer Catalog 2017-2018

Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy

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Head: Vincent Meunier

Associate Head: Kim M. Lewis

Department Home Page:
Physics is the source of new concepts about the nature of the universe and is a driving force for new technologies. The fundamental physics research of one generation frequently leads to the applied physics and technology of the next.

The Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy programs prepare undergraduate students to contribute to these new concepts and technologies through innovative teaching methods that combine student-faculty interactions, computer-based education, and “hands-on” experience in modern laboratories. The curricula are flexible so that students can prepare for either technical employment upon graduation or for graduate study in physics, applied physics, engineering, or other disciplines. Physics also provides an excellent foundation for a nontechnical career. Another important aspect of the physics program is student-faculty research projects involving collaboration between physics undergraduates and faculty on a variety of research topics at the forefront of the field.

The Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy’s graduate programs lead to the M.S. degree and the Ph.D. degree in physics. These degrees are available in several research areas that are summarized below. For graduate students specializing in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the M.S. degree is available either in Astronomy or Physics with specialization in Astrophysics.

Rensselaer’s graduate study in physics prepares students for a variety of careers including industrial research and development, government laboratory research, and university research and teaching. The department conducts both fundamental and applied research, often in collaboration with researchers from other Rensselaer departments, other universities, industry, or the National Laboratories. Characterizing the Physics Department’s intellectual climate are lively interactions between theorists and experimentalists with common research interests. Colloquia and department seminars supplement course work. As an important part of their graduate education, students collaborate with faculty members to make original research contributions in their area of specialization. Many have won national competitive graduate student research awards.

Research Innovations and Initiatives

Department Research Specialty, Experimental

Experimental research in the astrophysics group is primarily in the area of Galactic structure. The focus is on using observed substructure in the velocities and densities of stars in the Milky Way halo and disk to constrain the locations of dark matter in the Milky Way. In particular, dwarf galaxies falling into the Milky Way are ripped apart by gravitational tidal forces from the much larger Milky Way; the infalling dwarf galaxies also excite wavelike perturbations of the disk, and could provide the energy that drives the spiral structure. Halo and disk substructure are discovered and quantified using photometric, spectroscopic, and astrometric surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Chinese LAMOST spectral survey of Galactic stars, and the European Space Agency Gaia mission.

Condensed Matter Physics
The experimental condensed matter program concerns the physics of matter in the condensed phase. Research performed distinguishes between the bulk of matter, its surface and interface, and proceeds in close partnership with theory and computational studies. Of interest are new concepts, materials, and techniques for nanotechnology and green technology such as renewable energy, energy conservation and conversion, storage, and delivery. A number of research projects are interdisciplinary and take part in dedicated Centers across the Institute. In one dedicated effort, fundamental research is conducted on molecular electronics, which studies the quantum transport of molecules that exhibit conductance switching and rectification behavior. These measurements are completed using scanning probe microscopy techniques and electromigrated nano junctions measured at liquid He temperature. Another project aims at improving the understanding of materials, their structure, and devices. The metals, semiconductors, and insulators are prepared in thin film deposition (including oblique angle deposition) and epitaxial growth. Their structural, electronic transport, spin, and optical properties are characterized and compared to theoretical and numerical investigations. Other studies include wide band gap semiconductors, photonic crystals, polymers, semiconductor nanoparticle composites, dielectrics, magnetic, metallic thin films, two-dimensional layered materials and nanostructures. The research uses state-of-the-art characterization techniques such as electron, x-ray, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, Raman, terahertz, and scanning probe spectroscopies and microscopies. Local facilities include Micro and Nano Fabrication Clean Room and the Electron Microscope Laboratory.

Research in optical physics covers a wide range of activities related to photons and their interaction with various materials. Experimental and theoretical research is ongoing to provide innovative solutions to today’s problems in both fundamental and application aspects of the research area. Particularly, the goals of these activities are directed towards the development of novel nanoelectronic and nanophotonic devices, creative solutions for homeland security, renewable energies, biological and biomedical investigations, solar harvesting, and smart lighting. Faculty research includes photonic crystals, plasmonics, photonic nanostructures, light emitting diodes, terahertz photonics, spectroscopy, imaging, chemical and biological sensing and identification, ultrafast and nonlinear phenomena, the development of novel ultrafast spectroscopic techniques, development of novel optical materials including wideband gap and narrow band gap semiconductors, metallic nanoparticles, nanowires and their arrays, semiconducting quantum dots and quantum wells, amorphous materials. One such research effort aims to understand the fundamental interactions between single quantum emitters and plasmonic nano-antennas. By studying the changes in the single molecule emission properties through super-resolution imaging, it is possible to learn about the interactions of the fluorophore with its environment at the nanometer scale. Major facilities include various types of ultrafast lasers and ultrafast spectroscopy systems, terahertz imaging and spectroscopy systems, a micro and nanofabrication clean room for semiconductor processing, linear and nonlinear optical absorption, luminescence, super-resolution microscopy, Raman and Brillouin scattering, and various types of modulation spectroscopy systems.

Particles and Fields
The nature and structure of matter and energy remains one of mankind’s leading research frontiers. The faculty members involved in this area are engaged in experimental and theoretical studies of the fundamental interactions of matter at sub-femtometer distances.  Another research focus is on the direct detection of dark matter with the XENON100 and XENON1T experiments operated in the LNGS laboratory in Italy, and the nEXO neutrinoless double beta decay experiment. R&D efforts for these and future rare event physics experiments address xenon purification techniques to operate the most radiopure detectors in the world.

Department Research Specialty, Theoretical

Theoretical projects include studies of shock waves in star forming regions, multifluid magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), MHD instabilities, the physics of dusty plasmas, and electromagnetic mechanisms for heating asteroids during the early solar system. Researchers perform analytical calculations and are also significant users of Rensselaer’s supercomputing facility. Also performed are n-body simulations of the tidal disruption of dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way halo, using MilkyWay@home, a 0.5 PetaFLOPS volunteer computing platform built in-house. Simulations area compared to actual Milky Way data to determine the best parameters for the simulations, thus constraining the amount and distribution of dark matter in the halo. Testing also involves predictions of dark matter distribution for particular dark matter particles against the measured positions and motions of stars in the Milky Way.

Current research addresses theoretical and computational aspects of dynamics, and equilibrium and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of biomolecular systems. The objectives are to understand the structure, dynamics, stability and function of biomolecules from physical principles. Protein folding, self-assembly, binding, and dynamics are important for understanding how proteins work and how they interact with other biomolecules. Knowledge gained from this research has applications in biotechnology, drug design, and biomaterials. Parallel computer simulation methods are being applied to study protein folding, and aggregation. Highly parallel computer simulations of the folding dynamics and thermodynamics of biomolecules in aqueous solutions are being performed. Other research interests include the hydrophobic effect, enzyme catalysis, nucleic acids, proteins, and membranes.  Research in complex biological systems also addresses competition and invasion phenomena in large-scale ecological systems and population dynamics, and investigating epidemic spreading and contagion in social networks. On-campus collaborations and facilities include the Social Cognitive Network Academic Research Center.

Condensed Matter Physics
Theoretical and computational studies performed in condensed matter physics include the determination of the electronic structure of nanostructured materials, the description of models for the structure and electronic properties of surfaces and interfaces and the binding and mobility of adsorbed atoms on metal surfaces. Significant effort is also devoted to investigating molecular electronics and spintronics, as well as developing understanding of far-from-equilibrium physics. Many other aspects of condensed matter physics, at the forefront of research are subjects of dedicated projects, such as studies devoted to light-material interactions for solar-energy harvesting, photo catalysis, energy conversion, nonlinear optical properties, sensing, and structural transformation in inorganic and organic semiconductors and in bio materials. Many-body interactions encountered in electron-phonon coupling for excited-state energy relaxation, superconductivity, heat management, and thermoelectricity are also parts of the research portfolio. The researchers in the condensed matter groups pay particular attention to emerging materials such as low-cost solar cell materials, topological insulators, porous nanostructures, two-dimensional layered structures, and van der Waals solids with exotic electronic structures and defect properties for applications in electronics, optoelectronics, spintronics, and beyond. Finally, much work is realized on the physics of surfaces and the physics, chemistry, and dynamics of interfaces between solids and between solid and liquid. The various condensed matter theory efforts rely significantly on large-scale supercomputing approaches and take advantage of computational resources available at the Center for Computational Initiative as well as a number of dedicated Linux clusters and other GPU-based resources.    

Particle Physics
Activities primarily focus on investigations on beyond the standard model applications of lattice field theory. This includes strongly coupled supersymmetric systems such as ones that arise in hidden sector models of spontaneous supersymmetry breaking. Also studied, have been models of compositeness in the Higgs sector of the Standard Model, with electroweak symmetry broken by strong dynamics of a new gauge force. This has led researchers into developing software for the study of resonance properties from first principles, which is also useful for lattice quantum chromodynamics. Further investigations include dark matter cross sections based on calculations from lattice quantum chromodynamics, and the study of whether or not dark matter may have appreciable self-interactions. Much of this work has an eye toward string-inspired particle phenomenology, which has been a focus in the past.

Stochastic Dynamics on Complex Networks
One of the major developments of the last two decades has been the ever-increasing interconnectivity of a broad class of information networks, including physical and data network types arising in telecommunication, social networks, and transportation and energy infrastructures. This interconnectivity has led to immense temporal and spatial complexity in modern networks and a critical need for basic mathematical theory and statistical modeling of complex interacting networks. Our current research in this direction includes structure and dynamics of social, information, and infrastructure networks and applications to social dynamics and influencing, network vulnerability and robustness, transport, flows, and cascading failures in networks, and network-synchronization problems. On-campus collaborations and facilities are at the Social Cognitive Network Academic Research Center (SCNARC) and at the Network Science and Technology Center (NeST).

Undergraduate Programs

Undergraduate students begin with core curriculum courses that teach basic scientific principles and develop skills in problem solving, scientific thinking, and clear oral and written expression. Students also choose from a broad range of advanced courses in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy and in other science and engineering departments depending upon their individual career goals.

Outcomes of the Undergraduate Curricula
Students who successfully complete this program will be able to demonstrate:

  • an ability to evaluate the validity and utility of experimental information using logical, mathematical, and statistical tools.
  • an ability to perform scientific calculations and data analysis using computational and mathematical tools.
  • an ability to communicate technical material effectively using both oral and written presentation.
  • an ability to apply knowledge of electromagnetic theory using vector calculus to analyze and model real situations.
  • an ability to apply mechanics and kinematics including the analysis using differential equations and the Lagrangian formulation to address new problems in science and technology.
  • an ability to apply knowledge of basic phenomenology and concepts of quantum, atomic, nuclear, and particle physics along with ability to solve and analyze solutions to the Schrodinger equation to address new problems in science and technology.
  • an ability to apply knowledge of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics to analyze and model complex systems and the interactions of their agents.
  • an ability to apply and synthesize concepts from core mechanics, electromagnetics, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics courses in the in-depth study of a specialized field related to Physics such as Condensed Matter Physics, Optical Physics and Photonics, Particle Physics, Astrophysics, Biophysics, Astronomy, or Engineering.

Baccalaureate Programs

Rensselaer offers two undergraduate programs in physics, one leading to the B.S. degree in Physics and the other to the B.S. degree in Applied Physics. Students in the applied physics program must declare a concentration in a specific technological area, in which they take at least four elective courses.

Dual Major Programs

Physics students can obtain a dual major with any other degree at Rensselaer by fulfilling the requirements for both degrees. Overlapping requirements can be applied to both programs, permitting many dual degrees to be completed with the credits required for one degree. In some cases, special templates have been agreed upon which permit specific substitutions of courses. An example, the Applied Physics/ECSE program, can be found online at the ECSE department Web site.

Co-Terminal Program

Students may generally select, in their junior year, to follow a five-year B.S.-M.S. program. These students receive the B.S. in physics and the M.S. in either physics or another science or engineering discipline.

Graduate Programs

Graduate students develop flexible individual programs of study and research in one or more of the available research areas. The department offers both the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics, and a M.S. degree in astronomy.

Course Descriptions

Courses directly related to all Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy curricula are described in the Course Description section of this catalog under the department codes PHYS or ASTR.



Jackson, S.A.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); theoretical physics (Joint appointment with Engineering).

Korniss, G.—Ph.D. (Virginia Tech); statistical mechanics, dynamics in complex networks. 

Lin, S.-Y.—Ph.D. (Princeton University); design, nanofabrication, and experimental testing of active 3D photonic crystals.

Lu, T.-M.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin); thin films and interfaces.

Meunier, V.—Ph.D. (University of Namur, Belgium); computational solid state physics, electronic transport, energy storage, and low-dimensional structures; nano science. 

Newberg, H.J.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); astrophysics, computational astronomy, and Galactic structure.

Persans, P.D.—Ph.D. (University of Chicago); spectroscopy of semiconductors, thin films, optical materials.

Roberge, W.G.—Ph.D. (Harvard University); theoretical astrophysics.

Schroeder, J.—Ph.D. (Catholic University of America); physics and biological physics high pressure.

Shur, M.S.—Ph.D. (Ioffe Institute) Dr.Sc. (Ioffe Institute); semiconductor physics, ballistic transport, terahertz radiation, smart lighting, LED’s. (Primary appointment with ECSE also with PAPA).

Terrones, H.—Ph.D. (University of London); theory, experiment and characterization of 2-D materials and complex atomic structures.

Wang, G.-C.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin-Madison); growth and characterization of nanostructures and thin films.

Wetzel, C.M.—Ph.D. (Technical University, Munich); III-V nitride semiconductor physics, materials and devices in particular for lighting, photovoltaics, and electronics.

Zhang, S. B.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); computational condensed matter theory, lower-dimension materials, topological insulators, defects in optoelectronic and photovoltaic materials, and physics and chemistry of energy storage materials.

Associate Professors

Giedt, J.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); particle phenomenology, lattice field theory, string compactifications, high energy mathematical and computational physics.

Lewis, K.M.—Ph.D.  (University of Michigan); molecular electronics; quantum transport in nanoscale systems; low temperature characterization techniques; nanoscale fabrication.

Wilke, I.—Ph.D. (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology); ultrafast optics, photonics, optoelectronics and terahertz science and technology.

Yamaguchi, M.—Ph.D. (Hokkaido University); THz wave generation, pulse shaping, THz spectroscopy; acoustic/thermal transport in nanoscale materials; phonon and electron dynamics in condensed matter.

Assistant Professors

Brown, E.—Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles); experimental astroparticle physics, dark matter direct detection, liquid xenon detectors, novel gas purification and diagnostics.

Sundararaman, R.—Ph.D. (Cornell University); electronic structure theory, plasmonics, solid-liquid interfaces, computational methods and open-source software for materials science. (Primary appointment with Materials Science and Engineering.)

Wertz, E.A.—Ph.D. (Université Paris-Sud 11); light-matter interactions of single molecules with plasmonic nanostructures; super-resolution microscopy.

Professor of Practice

Washington, M.A.—Ph.D. (New York University); photonics.


Ciolek, G.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign); star formation; interstellar cloud flows, waves, and shocks; interstellar dust; plasma astrophysics; theoretical and computational multifluid magnetohydrodynamics.

Kim, Y.S.—Ph.D. (Iowa State University); Computational Physics, Photonic Crystals, Nano-Photonics, Integrated Optics.

Martin, C.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); Astronomy and Astrophysics; Milky Way Halo Substructure and Tidal Stream.

* Departmental faculty listings are accurate as of the date generated for inclusion in this catalog. For the most up-to-date listing of faculty positions, including end-of-year promotions, please refer to the Faculty Roster section of this catalog, which is current as of the May 2017 Board of Trustees meeting.




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