KITP Director Receives France's Highest Scientific Honor

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Santa Barbara, Calif.—David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has been selected the 2004 recipient of France's highest scientific honor—the Grande Médaille D'Or (the Grand Gold Medal)—for his contributions to the understanding of fundamental physical reality. Gross, who holds the Frederick W. Gluck Chair in Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, will receive the award, conferred by the French Academy of Sciences, at ceremonies in Paris on November 23.

Previous recipients include illustrious scientists Louis Pasteur, Pierre and Marie Curie, Gustave Eiffel, and Henri Poincare.

The French Academy cited Gross for contributions "to quantum field theory and particle physics, in particular in the foundations of quantum chromodynamics," which "have had a worldwide impact" and for "essential contributions to superstring theory, a theory (still in progress) of all the basic interactions."

Gross is best known for figuring out how the nucleus of atoms works—i.e., quantum chromodynamics (QCD)—and thereby solving the last great remaining problem of what has since come to be called "the Standard Model" of the quantum mechanical picture of reality.

In 1973 Gross and his graduate student Frank Wilczek (now an MIT professor) made the key discovery of how the "strong" force works to bind the constituent elements, called quarks, of protons and neutrons (the particles that make up the nucleus of atoms). The other three forces of nature—electromagnetism, the weak force (responsible for radioactive decay), and gravity all diminish in strength with distance. Gross and Wilczek discovered that the strong force grows stronger with distance.

This discovery called "asymptotic freedom" means that attempts to pull the quarks inside protons and neutrons apart increase the strength of the force binding them. This finding has had enormous implications for the design and conduct of experiments at the world's large accelerator facilities because it has enabled physicists to calculate what the results of the experiments should be. Discrepancies from those calculated results in turn provide the invaluable clues to new physics—i.e., physics beyond the Standard Model.

The flip side of "asymptomic freedom" has been described as "infra-red slavery." Since the force that binds quarks inside protons and neutrons grows stronger with distance, protons and neutrons can't be dismantled into constituent quarks. This part of the Gross-Wilczek discovery is called "confinement."

Attempting to go beyond "the Standard Model," string theory postulates that the fundamental constituents of matter and energy may appear to be point-like particles, but are in reality vibrating strings. In this view the quark and the particle of light, the photon, are really very, very small string-loops; and the different vibrations of the same fundamental constituent—the string—give rise to all the various and seemingly quite different particles.

In the mid 1980s, Gross, then a physics professor at Princeton University, and another of his famous graduate students, Ed Witten, now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, each headed up two coordinated seminal investigations into string theory. Each combined the efforts of three other physicists, and together they became known as the Princeton "string quartets." The Gross quartet discovered the heterotic string, and Witten's worked on the mathematics of "compactification," whereby the "extra" dimensions required by string theory are "curled up" inside strings.

The citation for the Grande Médaille notes not only Gross's scientific discoveries, but also the profound ramifications of his pedagogy: "His teaching of theoretical physics at Princeton University (1966-1997) has had a deep influence on numerous students, several of them being now among the most famous theorists themselves."

Finally, the citation acknowledges Gross's leadership contributions to the international physics community in his latest role as director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, characterized as "a world leading multidisciplinary center for science."

Henry T. Yang, UC Santa Barbara Chancellor said, "One of the most pleasurable rewards of my job is conveying my congratulations to one of my most stellar colleagues on his reception of this wonderful award. Professor Gross is indeed a gold medalist in the Olympics of the intellect."

After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1966, Gross was invited to join the select group of junior fellows at Harvard. Having accepted an appointment as assistant professor at Princeton in 1969, he was promoted to professor in 1972 and later named to two endowed chairs: first as Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and then as Thomas Jones Professor of Mathematical Physics.

Winner of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1987, Gross was elected an American Physical Society fellow in 1974, an American Academy of Arts and Sciences member in 1985, a National Academy of Sciences member in 1986, and American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow in 1987. He is the recipient of the J. J. Sakurai Prize of the American Physical Society in 1986, the Dirac Medal in 1988, the Oscar Klein Medal in 2000, the Harvey Prize of the Technion in 2000, and the High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society in 2003. He has received two honorary degrees.

Recipients of the Grande Médaille alternate between scientists representing one of the two divisions of the France Academy of Science: on even-numbered years to a representative of the first division of mathematical and physical sciences and on odd-numbered years to a representative of the second division of chemical, natural, biological and medical sciences.

[Note: Professor Gross can be reached at 805-893-7337 or by e-mail at gross [at] Physicist Edouard Brézin, president-elect of the French Academy of Sciences, can be reached at 33 1 44 41 43 51 to respond to questions relating to the award and science. For information about the French Academy of Sciences, visit For information about the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, visit]