Electric Bond

Mele and Kane

Inside a Silicon Valley NASA research facility last month, a tuxedoed Charles Kane and Eugene Mele took the stage before a room of fellow scientists, celebrities (Pierce Brosnan hosted) and tech moguls (Mark Zuckerberg among them). They were greeted by Lucy Hawking, the daughter of Stephen Hawking, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Kane, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Physics, holding a delicate-looking, silver toroid trophy between his hands like a small basketball, approached the microphone first to pay homage to the things that had gotten the two Penn physicists to this place.

“I’d like to thank the electrons,” he deadpanned.

Laughter ensued.

Kane, assuming a decidedly more serious tone, went on to thank the broader community of scientists who had contributed to their field. He and Mele,  longtime collaborator and also Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Physics, were being awarded the prestigious 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, cited for their work predicting “topological insulators”—a class of unique materials that could well forever shape the electronic landscape.

There was one more acknowledgement to make.

Mele told the room he was proud that their groundbreaking research in condensed matter physics had taken place at Penn—a university, it’s worth remembering, founded by a man known for casting a kite into the sky to study electricity.

“This is an institution that was established by Benjamin Franklin for, in his words, the pursuit of ‘those things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental,’” Mele said. “And that is exactly the idea behind this subject.”

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