Jul 17, 2024  
Rensselaer Catalog 2023-2024 
Rensselaer Catalog 2023-2024 [Archived Catalog]

Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy

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Head: Gyorgy Korniss

Associate Head: Joel Giedt

Department Home Page: https://science.rpi.edu/physics
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 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 focuses on near-field cosmology, in which local galaxies are studied as examples to understand the properties of the Universe, including dark matter and dark energy. A particular focus is on the dynamics and structure of the Milky Way as revealed by large, international photometric and spectroscopic surveys such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the Large Area Multi-Object Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST), and by astrometric surveys such as Gaia. Dwarf galaxies are ripped apart by tidal forces in the Milky Way into tidal streams. These streams are used to constrain the processes by which the Milky Way galaxy formed, and the distribution of the dark matter within it. The dwarf galaxies also excite wavelike structures in the Milky Way disk that could explain how spiral galaxy structure is formed and sustained.

Condensed Matter Physics
The experimental condensed matter research 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. Some projects are interdisciplinary and take part in dedicated Centers across the Institute, including the Center for Computational Innovation (CCI), which hosts one the fastest supercomputers in Academia. One fundamental research area is machine learning applied to energy-related material. Another aspect of current study is low-dimensional materials systems, including 2D layered materials and one-dimensional nanoribbons. Another project aims at improving our understanding of materials, their structure, and devices. Experimentally, the metals, semiconductors, and insulators are prepared in thin film deposition (including oblique angle deposition) and epitaxial growth (including van der Waals epitaxy). Their structural, electronic transport, spin, and optical properties are characterized and compared to theoretical and computational investigations. Other studies include wide band gap semiconductors, photonic crystals, polymers, semiconductor nanoparticle composites, dielectrics, magnetic, metallic thin films, two-dimensional layered materials, plasmonics and nanostructures. The department makes use of 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 the Mirco 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. The goals are the development of novel nanoelectronic and nanophotonic devices, creative solutions for homeland security, renewable energies, biological and biomedical investigations, solar harvesting, and smart lighting. 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, nanowires and their arrays, semiconducting quantum dots and quantum wells. 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, researchers can learn about the interactions of the fluorophore with its environment at the nanometer scale. Major facilities include ultrafast lasers and ultrafast and terahertz spectroscopy systems, a micro and nanofabrication clean room for semiconductor processing, linear and nonlinear optical absorption, luminescence, and super-resolution microscopy.

Particles and Fields

Rensselaer research in particle astrophysics is involved in one of the leading experiments that could detect WIMP dark matter, the XENON experiment in the Gran Sasso Mountain in central Italy. Students also perform R&D for neutrino and dark matter experiments in the high purity xenon laboratory at Rensselaer.

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 XENON1T experiment operated in the LNGS laboratory in Italy, and the search for neutrinoless double beta decay with the nEXO experiment. Research and development efforts for these and future experiments address xenon purification techniques to operate the most radiopure detectors in the world.

Department Research Specialty, Theoretical

Current research focuses on determining the location of dark matter in the Milky Way. N-body simulations of the tidal disruption of dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way halo are performed, using MilkyWay@home, a 0.5 PetaFLOPS volunteer computing platform built in-house. The simulations are 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. Also tested are predictions of dark matter distribution for particular dark matter particles against the measured positions and motions of stars in the Milky Way.

Condensed Matter Physics
Theoretical and computational studies performed include the electronic structure of nanostructured material, models for the structure and electronic properties of surfaces and interfaces and the binding and mobility of adsorbed atoms on metal surfaces, molecular electronics and spintronics, as well as effort to develop understanding of far-from-equilibrium physics. Active research activities also include a number of other aspects of condensed matter physics research such as studies devoted to light-material interactions for solar-energy harvesting, photo catalysis, energy conversion, sensing, and structural transformation in inorganic and organic semiconductors. Many-body interactions encountered in electron-phonon coupling for excited-state energy relaxation, and superconductivity are also parts of the research portfolio. The researchers 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, significant activities are 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, using resources from Rensselaer’s Center for Computational Innovations.    

Particle Physics
Activities in this area primarily focus on investigations on beyond the standard model applications of lattice field theory. This includes strongly coupled supersymmetric systems such as arise in hidden sector models of spontaneous supersymmetry breaking. Models of compositeness have also been studied in the Higgs sector of the Standard Model, with electroweak symmetry broken by strong dynamics of a new gauge force. This has led to the development of software for the study of resonance properties from first principles, which is also useful for lattice quantum chromodynamics. A key focus of ongoing research is dualities in gauge theories, such as S-duality (electric/magnetic) in N=4 super-Yang-Mills, and gauge/gravity dualities (AdS/CFT). This allows for the study quantum gravity in numerical simulations. Much of this work has an eye toward string-inspired particle phenomenology, which has been studied in the past.

Nonlinear Dynamics and 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. Rensselaer’s current research in this direction includes structure and dynamics of social, information, and biological networks and applications to social dynamics, network vulnerability, epidemic models, and 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 track 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 an 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.



Giedt, J.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); particle phenomenology, lattice field theory, string compactifications, high energy mathematical and computational physics, topological phases of matter, many-body theory and quantum information science.

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.

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.

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.—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, excitonic insulators, defects in optoelectronic and photovoltaic materials, and physics and chemistry of catalytic nano materials.

Associate Professors

Brown, E.—Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles); experimental particle astrophysics, dark matter direct detection, neutrinoless double beta decay, liquid xenon detectors, novel radiation detectors.

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

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

Assistant Professors

N’Gom, M.—Ph.D. (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor); quantum optics, ultrafast optics, light modulation, quantum entanglement, plasmonics, nanostructures.

Rhone, T.D.—Ph.D. (Columbia University, New York); computational solid-state physics, low-dimensional materials, energy storage, catalysis, magnetism and artificial intelligence.

Robles, V.—Ph.D. (CINVESTAV, México); Physics, Theoretical Astrophysics, galaxy formation, cosmology, and the nature of dark matter.

Zheng, Y.—Ph.D. (Columbia University); galaxy evolution, galactic ecosystem/circumgalactic medium, multi-wavelength spectroscopy.

Senior Lecturers

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.

West, D.—Ph.D. (Texas Tech University); condensed matter theory.


Georg, J.—Ph.D. (Syracuse University); early universe physics: inflation, reheating, primordial black holes; UV completion.

Hassan, H.—Ph.D. (SUNY Albany); Particulate pollutants’ physical and chemical properties, concentration trends, and source distributions.

Michael, J.D.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); plasma physics, ion/electron beams, laser spectroscopy, lighting technology.

Affiliated Appointments

Huang, Z.R.—Ph.D. (Georgia Institute of Technology); optoelectronic devices, integration and packaging, 3D integrated microsystems, lightwave circuits, integrated slow wave structures, photodetectors, electro-optic modulators, and laser diodes.

Narendran, N.—Ph.D. (University of Rhode Island); experiment and characterization of semiconductors for illumination systems and additively manufactured optical, thermo-mechanical, and electrical components for illumination applications.

Shi, J.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin, Madison); obtaining basic understanding on the roles of photon, carrier momentum, symmetry and phonon of novel materials on the transport behaviors, spin dynamics and optoelectronic properties and developing experimental approaches and solutions on searching for new electronic materials and device structures towards future computing (spintronic and quantum computing).

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.)

Szymanski, B.—Ph.D. (The Institute of Computer Science, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw); network science; computer networks; energy and the environment; computation and information technology; parallel and distributed computing. (Primary appointment with Computer Science.)

* 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 2022 Board of Trustees meeting.




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