Laboratory scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Organization recognizes scientific achievement, contributes advice on critical issues

May 20, 2024

Wojciech Hubert Zurek

Theoretical physicist Wojciech Hubert Zurek (T-4) has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Election to the National Academy of Sciences recognizes past and continuing research excellence and is a pinnacle of scientific achievement. Over his career, including a long tenure in the Theoretical division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Zurek worked on diverse subjects, including astrophysics and the physics of information. He is, above all, an internationally recognized authority on the foundations of quantum theory and on the dynamics of both classical and quantum phase transitions.

“Wojciech’s career at Los Alamos is notable for the many collaborations he has built, both within the Laboratory and externally, where he has set the very highest academic standards and mentored a large cadre of superb researchers,” said Thom Mason, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

One of Zurek’s signature contributions to physics is the theory of decoherence, which shows how a state of a quantum system is affected by the interaction with its environment. Decoherence explains how the classical realm arises in a universe made of quantum ingredients such as atoms and photons. Quantum Darwinism — a vast extension of decoherence — draws on the no-cloning theorem and uses concepts such as quantum discord to account for the emergence of the classical world from within our fundamentally quantum universe.

The Kibble-Zurek mechanism is a theory of the non-equilibrium dynamics of quantum and classical phase transitions. It predicts how topological defects form when a transition happens far from equilibrium. It allows one to predict the number of topological defects as a function of the rate of the quench that induces the transitions. The Kibble-Zurek mechanism has applications that range from cosmology to low-temperature and condensed-matter physics, where it was successfully tested experimentally.

“This special recognition reflects the science community’s incredibly high regard for Wojciech’s sustained and dynamic contributions to theoretical physics,” said Mark Chadwick, interim deputy Laboratory director for Science, Technology, and Engineering at Los Alamos. “His commitment to advancing the field through profound research exemplifies the inquisitive, collaborative spirit that moves theoretical physics forward.” 

Joining Los Alamos National Laboratory as an Oppenheimer Fellow in 1984, Zurek became leader of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group in 1991. He was recognized as a Laboratory Fellow in 1996. Zurek is a recipient of the Los Alamos Medal, the Lab’s highest honor; the Marian Smoluchowski Medal of the Polish Physical Society; and the Humboldt Research Award. He is Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Science and Technology in Krakow (AGH), of the Jagiellonian University (also in Krakow), and was Einstein Professor at the Ulm University.