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James Sethna

James Gilbert White Professor of Physical Sciences

Materials science, including crackling noise and avalanches in magnetic systems, tweed in shape-memory alloys, accelerated simulations of surface growth; glasses, including metallic glasses, low temperature glasses, slow relaxation, and scaling theories of the glass transition; disordered systems, including Griffiths phase in spin glasses, spin glasses on the Bethe lattice, sliding charge-density waves; liquid crystals; Blue Phases as networks of defect lines and in curved space; boojums in chiral smectic films; quantum instanton methods for atomic tunneling; early Berry's phase work in high-temperature superconductors; atomic tunneling from an STM/AFM tip; theory of vortex core states in superconductors; dynamical systems, including transition to chaos from quasiperiodic motion using renormalization group; noise in crumpling paper; dynamics of cell membranes and twisted DNA.


We’ve recently been interested how multiparameter models in many fields of physics (from systems biology to cosmology) have collective behavior which depends only loosely on their parameters; these sloppy models work in some ways for the same reasons that underlie continuum limits and the renormalization group. In materials physics, we are using statistical mechanics to understand plasticity and fracture in disordered materials – our models show fractal dislocation structures and earthquake-like crackling noise. We are also working on nonlinear scaling variables in the renormalization group, on theories of jamming, and using dynamical systems theory and the theory of superconductivity to help build better particle accelerators.

Awards and Honors

  • Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, 1985
  • Presidential Young Investigator Award, 1985

Educational Background

  • Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1995-present
  • Associate Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1989-1995
  • Assistant Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1984-1989
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate, Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1981-1984
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate, Cornell University, 1981-1984
  • Ph.D. in Physics, Princeton University, 1981
  • B.Sc. in Physics, Harvard University, 1977