Physicist to Shed Light on an Emerging Field in Physics

January 5, 2018

Bo Zhen, an assistant professor of physics, has been awarded a Young Investigator Grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Zhen will receive $450,000 for a three-year period to investigate non-Hermitian topological photonics.

​​​​​​​In the past decade, topology, a branch of the mathematics studying the preserved properties of objects under continuous deformations, has received an increasing amount of attention in physics. From a topological point of view, a coffee mug and a donut are the same. Since each object has one hole, it is possible for the donut to morph into a mug through continuous deformations:  one would simply make a depression into one side of the donut to make the mug and shrink the donut's hole to make the mug's handle. This sort of abstraction, Zhen said, gives way to new properties in physics and interesting applications in practice.

“When you design something, you usually think about the geometric aspect of it,” Zhen says. “If we were designing a pipeline to talk to each other, what we would care about is the geometry of the pipe. Along the pipe, we would try to make sure the shape never changes because if you change it somehow, say if you block it by half, there will be back reflection and the transmission will not be perfect. Any imperfection degrades your performance. But it's very hard to keep the geometric aspect to be exactly the same across the whole pipe. So we start to think about whether it is possible to rely on some other property that is much easier to maintain and still protect us from this kind of degradation. One solution is to use the concept of topology and build a new type of transmission line where the exact geometry doesn't matter: we can put as much disorder along the path as we want but the transmission will always be perfect.”

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