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About PHY

PHY Overview: The Division of Physics covers research in the following major subfields: atomic, molecular and optical physics; elementary particle physics; nuclear physics; particle astrophysics; nuclear astrophysics; gravitational physics; plasma physics; physics of living systems; computational physics, and integrative activities.

PHY Mission: To support fundamental research across the intellectual frontiers of physics, to support research that has broader impacts on other fields of science and on the health, economic strength, and defense of society, to enhance education at all levels and share the excitement of science with the public through integration of education and research, and to steward the physics community so as to maintain the intellectual capital essential for future advances.  Modes of support include single investigator awards, group awards, centers and institutes, some interdisciplinary in nature, and several national user facilities, as well as research equipment/instrumentation development grants.

PHY Science: Physics research probes the properties of matter at its most fundamental level, the interactions between particles, and the organization of constituents and symmetry principles that lead to the rich structure and phenomena that we observe in the world around us. Physics seeks a deep understanding of processes that led to the formation of the cosmos, to the structure of matter at the very shortest distance scales where quantum effects dominate, and to the structure of atomic and molecular systems that shape and control the everyday world of chemistry and biological systems. Because of the breadth and scope of physics, it forms part of the core educational curriculum in most sciences and in engineering.

Physics research encompasses both theoretical and experimental studies, has very profound connections with fundamental mathematics, and underlies most of the other physical sciences. Collaboration with the other scientific disciplines is very important to the continued health and excitement of physics, some examples being in biological physics at the molecular and cellular levels, in quantum information science at the physics-computer science interface, in the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe (cosmology), and in mathematical physics such as the development of the string theory for describing quantum processes. PHY will continue to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research.

Physics also supports the development of new tools and techniques needed to expand and refine our understanding of physical systems - from particle accelerators to probe physics at the energy and short-distance frontier, to femtosecond lasers to probe and control atomic and molecular systems, to LIGO, a new window on cosmological events ranging from the birth of the universe to the death throws of stars. The extraordinary sensitivity required for some of the instrumentation demands new technology development. For example, LIGO requires a displacement sensitivity of one thousandth of the diameter of the proton to observe gravitational waves from explosive cosmological processes! Such development is clearly a very high-risk endeavor. The payoff for such investments can also be very high, both scientifically and to the economic and technological future of the Nation. For example, the development and application of femtosecond lasers now permits radically improved laser surgery and micro electronics fabrication, and points the way towards full quantum control of physical and chemical processes. PHY encourages research that pushes the envelope of technology as well as the reach of science and sees this also as an investment in developing the scientific leaders of the future.

PHY Infrastructure: PHY-supported user facilities serve thousands of U.S. researchers. These facilities include the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), producing radioactive ion beams for nuclear physics, an electron-positron collider facility for elementary particle physics, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a joint NSF-DOE-CERN project at the high energy frontier, and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a neutrino-detector facility at the South Pole. PHY support through the Physics Frontiers Centers program covers nine multidisciplinary centers and institutes serving a very broad community. Education is central to all PHY activities and all awards. The Research Experience for Undergraduates Site program is an important element in the support of education. PHY now supports more than 53 such sites around the country, introducing about 500 undergraduates annually to important forefront research activities in physics.

Image credit: LIGO/T. Pyle