By Tim Stoddard
H. Eugene Stanley has a hard time saying no to new scientific puzzles. Stanley, a University Professor, a CAS professor of physics, and director of the Center for Polymer Studies, has explored phenomena from avalanches to Alzheimer's disease to the unusual nature of water. How has he managed to cross so many disciplinary boundaries and make significant contributions to different fields? “Everyone would be a Renaissance physicist,” he says, “except they seem to have more self-control than I do.”
For his outstanding contributions to the field of statistical physics, Stanley will receive the 2004 Boltzmann Award. Presented every three years by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), the Boltzmann Award is the highest honor in statistical physics, a branch of science exploring the seemingly random behavior of large collections of objects. The award will be presented at the upcoming IUPAP meeting, Statphys 22, to be held in Bangalore, India, in July.
“This is a major international award,” says Charles DeLisi, senior associate provost of biosciences and the Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering. “It places Gene among the true elites in one of the most active and established areas of physics, and brings enormous prestige and visibility to the physical sciences and mathematics at BU.”
In his nearly four decades of scientific endeavor, Stanley has created several new subfields within statistical physics, building on many of the laws established by Ludwig Boltzmann, the 19th-century Austrian physicist who invented the field. Stanley has applied the fundamental mathematics established by Boltzmann to understand how the microscopic behavior of individual atoms and molecules corresponds to the macroscopic behavior of many phenomena in nature.
“Gene is a quintessential bridge builder,” says University Provost Dennis Berkey. “He brings sophisticated mathematics to hard and important problems in the physical and life sciences, connecting faculty and ideas across many disciplines to enrich the intellectual fabric of the University. No less important, he is a friend and mentor to many, and a wonderful human being. This award is much deserved, and we are very proud of him.”
To market, to market
Stanley is perhaps best known for his seminal work in econophysics, a subfield of statistical physics he created in the early 1990s that has been shedding light on the complex behavior of financial markets. With his graduate students, Stanley obtained raw data on 100 million stock transactions recorded over the previous 10 years. “The stock fluctuations are interesting in their own right,” Stanley says, “because we don't understand much about why price fluctuations occur the way they do.” After convincing BU to double his computer resources, Stanley and his team analyzed changes in stock prices, looking for the rarest events, such as when a stock doubles in a day. Up until then, money managers had assumed these extreme events followed a bell-shaped curve, in which major jumps or drops in prices were less likely to occur. But in a 1995 paper in the journal Nature, Stanley's group showed that these anomalies actually occur much more frequently than had been previously assumed. The results were almost immediately incorporated into computer models used by money managers, and now traders take better account of outliers that can be most damaging to these funds.
An unusual liquid
Stanley has long been fascinated by the unusual, and what he calls puzzling, properties of the most abundant liquid on Earth. “The behavior of water is different from other liquids,” he says. “For instance, every child knows that ice floats on top of water, but in other liquids, the solid phase does not float. There's a long list of other anomalies of water, and they don't make sense, so people have tried to figure out why.”
Water has several known transition phases, such as the point at which it changes from solid to liquid and liquid to gas. With other researchers at the Center for Polymer Studies, Stanley has theorized that there might be yet another critical point at a temperature when liquid water is “supercooled.” With the right combination of low temperature and high pressure, ordinary liquid water should exist in a rare second state as a high-density liquid. It's been difficult to make precise measurements on supercooled water in the laboratory, but on a recent trip to Germany, Stanley learned that colleagues there are developing new techniques that may soon verify his prediction.
Meanwhile, Stanley is immersed in several other research endeavors, including one exploring Alzheimer's disease. “This is an exciting area of research,” he says, “because BU just received $1 million from IBM for a supercomputer to focus on Alzheimer's disease. In the field of Alzheimer's, we have the best computational power of any group.”
Stanley and other researchers will use the supercomputer to examine the growth mechanisms of senile plaques, which form in certain areas of the brain in many Alzheimer's patients. “The hypothesis in Alzheimer's is that two long chain molecules find each other and form a bond,” he says, “and this starts a chain reaction in which additional molecules also join the cluster, and pretty soon it snowballs to become a plaque. How plaques come to exist is not known, and it's not even really known if this is the cause of Alzheimer's disease or just an effect of it.”
Stanley attributes his omnivorous research interests to the scores of graduate students who've brought fresh ideas and questions to his lab. “This prize is really for collaboration with others,” he says, “and in my case that's primarily BU undergraduate and graduate students.” Many of the students he's mentored have gone on to successful careers of their own, and several hold endowed professorships at major universities. “I don't push my students in certain directions,” he says. “I try instead to inspire them to have their own ideas. We're called the ‘I' group sometimes, because the first thing I tell students is that the most important quality is initiative. I want my students to be ambitious, because if you don't shoot for the moon, you'll never hit it.”