Guide to Programs Splash Page Skip Navigation Search Guide to Programs    NSF   Questions   NSF E-Bulletin   OLPA Home   NSF Site Map   NSF Home

This document has been archived. For current NSF funding opportunities, see

Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences
Division of Physics

The Division of Physics (PHY) supports a wide range of activities in the different subfields of physics. The primary mode of funding is to individual investigators or small groups. The division also funds the operation of two large-scale accelerator facilities (the Cornell Electron Storage Ring and the Michigan State University National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory); the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory; several smaller-scale accelerators; a number of centers in atomic, molecular, and optical physics and in theoretical physics; and a new program of Physics Frontiers Centers.

The research activities in the Physics Division are inextricably linked to education, and support about 800 graduate students who are fully engaged in research. Some of these activities involve substantial numbers of undergraduate students as well, especially the summer activities that are centered around the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. The division now supports approximately 50 REU Sites. Research activities at 4-year colleges are supported through the Research at Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) Program. The division also supports Research Experiences for Teachers through grants to provide grade K–12 science teachers with research training opportunities. In addition, the division offers significant training opportunities for young people through its support of about 500 postdoctoral positions. The division also supports outreach activities coupled to research that are intended to convey the excitement of physics to students in grades K–12 and to help educate the public at large in forefront science.

1. Atomic, Molecular, Optical, and Plasma Physics

In Atomic and Molecular Physics, research is supported in areas such as quantum control, cooling and trapping of atoms and ions, low-temperature collision dynamics, the collective behavior of atoms in weakly interacting gases (Bose-Einstein condensates), precision measurements of fundamental constants, and the effects of electron correlation on structure and dynamics. In Optical Physics, support is provided in areas such as nonlinear response of isolated atoms to intense, ultrashort electromagnetic fields; the atom/cavity interaction at high fields; and quantum properties of the electromagnetic field. In basic Plasma Physics, support focuses on the study of the behavior of plasmas in confined magnetic structures and in laser plasma interactions.

Several centers and one user facility are supported. The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) at the University of Colorado is supported jointly with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. JILA conducts leading-edge research in many aspects of atomic, molecular, and optical physics. The Center for Ultracold Atoms, a joint MIT-Harvard University activity, conducts research in the area of Bose-Einstein condensates and coherent atom sources. The Large Aperture Plasma Device at UCLA is supported jointly with the Department of Energy as a user facility for the study of plasma waves.

2. Biological Physics

Supports projects in which the analytical and experimental tools of physics are applied to the study of problems that originate in the living world. Both experimental and theoretical projects will be considered, although the main focus of the program is the experimental area. Of particular interest are projects in which new experimental approaches are brought to bear on a well-identified problem. These approaches should, at the same time, have the potential for broad applicability to a set of similar problems, thereby adding to the set of tools the scientist has for addressing biological problems in general. While the problems under study must be important to advancing understanding of the living world in a meaningful way, particular emphasis will be placed on those projects in which the lessons learned from the application serve to foster new concepts and ideas that expand the intellectual basis of physics. The program funds individual investigators, although collaborative proposals between physicists and biologists are welcome.

3. Elementary Particle Physics

Supports research on the properties and interactions of elementary particles, the most fundamental building blocks of matter, at the frontiers of energy and sensitivity. Research includes the exploration of quarks and leptons and interactions among these elementary constituents. The program supports university groups working at major accelerator laboratories, including those operated by the Department of Energy, and university groups involved in the construction of detectors for the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The program supports the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR), which produces electron and positron colliding beams that allow detailed studies by university groups of b-meson physics and upsilon physics, and facilitates an aggressive program of synchrotron radiation research at the Cornell High-Energy Synchrotron Source, which is operated by the Division of Materials Research. CESR is among the highest luminosity electron-positron colliders in the world in this energy range. CESR also maintains a vigorous program of accelerator research and development.

4. Gravitational Physics

Emphasizes the theory of strong gravitational fields and their application to astrophysics and cosmology, computer simulations of strong gravitational fields, gravitational radiation, and construction of a quantum theory of gravity. The program oversees the management of the construction, commissioning, and operation of the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory (LIGO) and provides support for LIGO users and other experimental investigations in gravitational physics and related areas.

5. Nuclear Physics

Supports research on the properties and behavior of nuclei and nuclear matter under extreme conditions; the quark-gluon basis for the structure and dynamics of nuclear matter (which is now given in terms of mesons and nucleons); phase transitions of nuclear matter from normal nuclear density and temperature to the predicted high-temperature quark-gluon plasma; and basic interactions and fundamental symmetries. This research involves many probes, including intermediate-energy to multi-GeV electrons and photons; intermediate-energy light ions; low-energy to relativistic heavy ions, including radioactive beams; and non-accelerator-based studies. Other important components of the program include accelerator physics, interdisciplinary efforts, and applications to other fields.

The program supports university user groups executing experiments at a large number of laboratories in the United States and abroad, and a national user facility—the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, a superconducting, heavy-ion cyclotron facility at Michigan State University. The program also supports smaller accelerator facilities, such as those at Florida State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

6. Particle and Nuclear Astrophysics

Supports university groups conducting research in particle and nuclear astrophysics. Activities supported currently include high-energy cosmic ray studies, solar and high-energy neutrino astrophysics, the study of gamma ray bursts, and searches for dark matter. Under construction are the Auger, HiRes, STACEE, and Milagro cosmic ray/gamma ray detectors, the Borexino solar neutrino detector, the Amanda II high-energy neutrino detector, and the CDMS II and DRIFT dark matter detectors. Support also is provided for accelerator-based nuclear astrophysics studies of stellar process, nucleosynthesis, and processes related to cosmology and the early universe.

7. Theoretical Physics

Supports the development of qualitative and quantitative understanding of fundamental physical systems, ranging from the most elementary constituents of matter through nuclei and atoms to astrophysical objects. This includes formulating new approaches for theoretical, computational, and experimental research that explore the fundamental laws of physics and the behavior of physical systems; formulating quantitative hypotheses; exploring and analyzing the implications of such hypotheses computationally; and in some cases, interpreting the results of experiments. Support is given for research in the following areas: elementary particle physics; nuclear physics; atomic, molecular, optical, and plasma physics; astrophysics and cosmology; and a broad spectrum of topics in mathematical physics, computational physics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos, and statistical physics. The effort also includes a considerable number of interdisciplinary grants.

In addition, the program supports infrastructure activities such as the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics, and the Aspen Center for Physics. These activities include both short- and long-term visitor programs, workshops, and research involving the participation of external scientists from universities, national laboratories, and industry, as well as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

8. Education and Interdisciplinary Research

Supports activities in conjunction with NSF-wide programs such as Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER), Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), and programs aimed at women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. Further information about all of these programs and activities is available in the Crosscutting Investment Strategies section in this Guide.

The program also supports activities that seek to improve the education and training of physics students—both undergraduate and graduate—such as curriculum development for upper-level physics courses and activities that are not included in specific programs elsewhere within NSF. Also supported is research at the interface between physics and other disciplines—including medical physics and computation—and extending to emerging areas. Broadening activities related to research at the interface with other fields, possibly not normally associated with physics, also may be considered.

9. Physics at the Information Frontier

Provides support for physics proposals in three subareas: computational physics, information intensive physics, and quantum information and revolutionary computing. Computational physics focuses on computational problems in physics requiring significant long-term code development and/or a medium to large collaborative effort involving physicists or physicists interacting with applied mathematicians and computer scientists. Information intensive physics seeks proposals to (1) develop rapid, secure, and efficient access to physics data stores rising from Petabytes (today) to Exabytes (in 10 years) via heterogeneous and distributed computing resources and networks of varying capability and reliability and (2) to develop internally consistent approaches to the usage of common resources required in the multiple collaborations and serving virtual science organizations on a global scale. Quantum information and revolutionary computing supports proposals that explore applications of quantum mechanics to new computing paradigms for physics or that foster interactions between the physical, mathematical, and computer scientists who push the frontiers of quantum physics.

10. Physics Frontiers Centers (PFCs)

Support university-based centers and large groups in cases where this mode of research is required to make transformational advances in the most promising research areas. Proposals will be considered in areas within the purview of the Division of Physics, broadly interpreted—for example, atomic, molecular, optical, plasma, elementary particle, nuclear, astro, gravitational, interdisciplinary, and emerging areas of physics. Interdisciplinary physics is taken here to mean research at the interface between physics and other disciplines—for example, biophysics, quantum information science, and mathematical physics. The purpose of the PFC Program is to enable major advances at the intellectual frontiers of physics by providing needed resources not usually available to individual investigators or small groups. PFCs make it possible to address major challenges that require combinations of talents, skills, and/or disciplines; specialized infrastructure; large collaborations; or centers/institutes that catalyze rapid advances on the most promising research topics. Proposals are received only in response to a program solicitation. The next solicitation will be released in fiscal year 2004.

Back to top
The National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-5111, FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090