Paul Michael Chaikin

Paul Michael Chaikin was born and raised in Brooklyn. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, New York, he attended the California Institute of Technology and earned his B.S. in physics in 1971. Paul pursued his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Pennsylvania under the supervision of Professors M. Anthony Jensen and Alan J. Heeger. His thesis, submitted in 1971, was titled “Probing Many-body Effects with Superconductivity.” Following a short postdoctoral stint in Heeger’s laboratory, Paul was appointed assistant professor of physics at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1972. At UCLA, he rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a full professor in 1980. In 1983, he assumed a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed until 1988 when he was appointed professor of physics at Princeton. In 1995, he published the graduate-level textbook Principles of Condensed Matter Physics, which he coauthored with Professor Tom Lubensky (UPenn), which rapidly assumed iconic status worldwide as the bible of “soft” condensed-matter physics (in the BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances, the textbook was favorite bedtime reading for Hyacinth’s brother, Onslow).

At Princeton, Paul was named the Henry DeWolf Smyth Professor of Physics in 2000. In recognition of his prolific research output and seminal contributions in several key areas of condensed matter physics, Paul was elected in 2003 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2004 to the National Academy of Science. In addition to his academic appointments, he has had a long associate with the Exxon Research and Engineering Corporation, and helped establish the complex fluids group that dominated soft-matter physics in the 1980s and the 1990s. He also was a consultant to IBM, Chevron, and the NEC Institute at Princeton. Paul was appointed divisional associate editor of Physical Review Letters (1988-1991), and served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Molecular Electronics Comments on Solid-State Physics and Reports on Progress in Physics, and currently serves on the Princeton University Press Physics Series. Paul has served on several panels in the United States, Europe, and Japan, charged with mapping out future directions in condensed-matter physics, and has been appointed as adviser to several universities world-wide. He also has advised the National Science Board on the science and technology of very intense magnetic fields, and NASA on microgravity experiments on the space shuttle.

While scientists tend to shift glacially from one area of specialization to neighboring areas of the course of their careers, Paul is pre-eminent—and widely admired—for his ability to cross barriers to uncover new results in highly disparate areas. His initial interests were in magnetism and superconductivity in alloys and then films, and later in the unusual low-temperature properties of one-dimensional metals based on organic metals—subfields that are part of what is now termed “hard condensed-matter physics.” Over the decades, 1980-2000, Paul, his students, and postdocs reported a series of discoveries in the Bechgaard salts, which established his group as the leader in the field of organic conductors.

In a series of experiments, which constitute the Ph.D. theses of a generation of Princeton graduate students, Paul and his students revealed the exquisite sensitivity of the electrons to slight changes in magnetic field and pressure. The rich array of distinct phases continue to challenge theoretical understanding of how interacting electrons, confined to one-dimensional motion, respond collectively to pressure and field at very low temperatures.

At Princeton, Paul’s interests expanded to include problems in which Planck’s constant is irrelevant. These include phase transitions of hard spheres, arrays of polystyrene balls, ordering of polymers and diblock copolymers, liquid crystals, and closed-packing of spheres and ellipsoids. In the past two decades, these problems have benefited greatly from the infusion of ideas from traditional condensed-matter physics and field theory. Paul and his students devised experiments of ever-increasing sophistication to study phase transitions in colloidal particles. Eventually, his interest expanded to include all aspects of melting in hard-sphere problems, as well as to close-packing involving spheroids and ellipsoids.  These experiments, increasingly sensitive to the unwanted effects of the earth’s gravity, led to experiments run on space shuttles to exploit their micro-gravity environment.

Chaikin’s groups and laboratories were known for their informality, and especially for the practical jokes that his students often invented. Classics are: The doors to the lab being replaced by a brick wall for an all-weekend poker game; the lab filled with balloons for his first daughter’s birth; and the office phone that when picked up turns out the office lights. Probably the best known is the 55-gallon drum of peanut M&Ms that the students left one night in his office (knowing that he liked plain not peanut for lunch). This led to an experiment on the packing of ellipsoids (M&Ms among them) that showed that ellipsoids pack more densely than spheres both randomly and in a crystal. The picture of Chaikin and his collaborator Salvatore Torquato with the 55-gallon barrel of M&Ms made the news around the world.

In 2005, Paul assumed emeritus status at Princeton. Currently, he holds the Silver Professorship in Physics at New York University, where he is spearheading a Center for Soft Condensed Matter Research. Paul and Paula Chaikin live in Manhattan with one of their two children.