Physics Professor Robert Swendsen's classes often leave students clamoring for more — even though they are some of the hardest they've ever taken. But due to Swendsen's teaching, the classes also are among their favorites.
The Carnegie Mellon University faculty member and award-winning teacher also was recently recognized for his research efforts as the winner of the 2014 Aneesur Rahman Prize for Computational Physics from the American Physical Society (APS).
The prize, considered to be the top award in the field of computational physics, was established in 1992 to recognize outstanding research achievements in the field.
Swendsen was cited for his "multiple, groundbreaking algorithmic developments in computational statistical physics." His work has focused on developing efficient methods for calculating the properties of materials, based on the interactions of large numbers of atoms and molecules.
"I've always loved to develop new approaches to calculating properties of physical systems, and computers have opened up possibilities for algorithms that would otherwise not be conceivable," Swendsen said. "To have my peers recognize that my work in this area has made a difference is truly an honor."
Swendsen earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Yale in 1964 and his doctoral degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. After completing postdoctoral work at the University of Cologne, he went to the Institut fuer Festkoerperforschung in Germany, where he began to work on Monte Carlo computer simulations, which use random numbers to simulate thermal fluctuations in materials containing large numbers of atoms and molecules. He also worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and IBM Research Laboratory in Zurich.
Swendsen joined the Carnegie Mellon physics faculty in 1984. With his graduate student Jian-Sheng Wang, he developed an algorithm that improved the efficiency of Monte Carlo computer simulations by a speed-up factor as high as 10,000. This proved highly valuable in investigating the properties of phase transitions, for which previous computer simulations had been very slow. Working with another graduate student, Alan Ferrenberg, he developed a method for representing material properties in the form of continuous functions of temperature, even though the original simulations had been done at a small number of temperature values. This method is particularly valuable in biophysics and biochemistry for extracting information from computer simulations of proteins.
Swendsen is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1982, he received the IBM Outstanding Achievement Award for "Application of the Monte Carlo Renormalization Group Method," and in 1991 he received the Forefronts of Large-Scale Computational Problems Award for "Molecular Dynamics Studies of DNA Structure," with Shankar Kumar, John M. Rosenberg and Peter Kollman. He has also authored two books, "Statistical Mechanics Made Simple," with Daniel C. Mattis, and "An Introduction to Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics."
In addition to receiving the Rahman Prize in March at the APS Meeting in Denver, Swendsen has been named this year's recipient of the Mellon College of Science's Julius Ashkin Teaching Award.
"Professor Swendsen isn't the kind of professor who does research and teaches begrudgingly … he is a teacher first and foremost, and his love and passion for the profession is an evident truth to anyone who is fortunate enough to see him in front of a chalkboard," said Corey Montella (S'09, TPR'09).