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The armillary sphere sculpture at Old Main on the University Park campus.

Two from Eberly College of Science named among first Atherton Professors

20 February 2023

Abhay Ashtekar, Evan Pugh Professor of Physics, and George Andrews, Evan Pugh Professor of Mathematics, have been honored by Penn State with the title of Atherton Professor. The University created the Atherton Professorship to recognize the continuing high level of scholarly or creative activity Evan Pugh Professors may pursue after their retirement.

The Evan Pugh Professorship is the highest distinction bestowed upon faculty by the University. Since the establishment of the designation in 1960, only 79 faculty members have been named as Evan Pugh Professors. The new professorship recognizes emeritus Evan Pugh Professors for their exceptional record of research and creative accomplishment, teaching and learning, and service over the course of their careers, and allows for the continuation of these activities to the benefit of the University community.

"I am delighted to announce that Abhay Ashtekar and George Andrews have been named Atherton Professors,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science and professor of biology. “This new honorific was created to recognize emeritus Evan Pugh Professors, and I can’t think of two more deserving individuals to be among the first cohort honored by the University with this title. The fact that two of the three inaugural Atherton Professors are Eberly College of Science emeritus faculty shows the level of excellence, collegiality, and lifelong dedication to research, discovery, and education that is ingrained in our college."

In addition to Ashtekar and Andrews, James Kasting from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences has also been named an Atherton Professor.

Abhay Ashtekar

Abhay Ashtekar

Ashtekar is Emeritus Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Physics and was the founding director of the Penn State Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos, which he led from 1992 to 2021.

"Abhay has had enormous influence in making Penn State an internationally recognized center of excellence for fundamental studies in gravitational physics and cosmology,” said Nitin Samarth, George A. and Margaret M. Downsbrough Department Head and professor of physics. “I look forward to his continued engagement as a creative scholar advancing the frontiers of fundamental theory and as an ambassador representing Penn State's leadership to the broader scientific community."

Ashtekar is a widely recognized leader in theoretical physics and focuses his research on classical general relativity and quantum gravity. Ashtekar’s most prominent and creative contribution to physics is his seminal reformulation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity as a gauge theory. The central piece of this reformulation is his discovery of a new set of canonical variables, now known as Ashtekar variables, that provided a powerful representation of canonical general relativity and led to an important branch of fundamental theory known as “loop quantum gravity.” Thanks to his groundbreaking work, loop quantum gravity—a quantum theory of spacetime—has become a leading approach to the unification of general relativity and quantum physics that is being pursued by dozens of research groups worldwide. The Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos that Ashtekar created at Penn State is a focal point for research worldwide into all aspects of the theory of gravity, including quantum gravity.

Renowned as one of the most-cited researchers in the field of relativity, Ashtekar has given over 200 plenary lectures at national and international conferences and workshops. Ashtekar was honored at the Loops 11 Conference "Celebrating 25 years of Loop Quantum Gravity," which in 2011 commemorated the 25th anniversary of the publication of his landmark scientific paper about loop quantum gravity that sparked a revolution within the field of spacetime physics. His previous awards and recognitions include honorary doctoral degrees from the Université de la Méditerranée in Aix-Marseille, France, in 2010, and from the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, in 2005. In addition, in 2004, he received a Forschungspreis Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. He has written or co-written 290 scientific papers and written or co-edited nine scientific books. He has served on the editorial boards of all the major journals in his field.

Ashtekar was honored with the Einstein Prize from the American Physical Society, which recognizes outstanding accomplishments in the field of gravitational physics, in 2018. Also in 2018, he was named an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State. In 2016, he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors accorded to U.S. scientists or engineers by their peers. Ashtekar is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society. He is one of only 51 Honorary Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences drawn from the community of scientists living outside of India. He has held the Krammers Visiting Chair in Theoretical Physics at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands; a Senior Visiting Fellowship of the British Science and Engineering Research Council; and the Sir C. V. Raman Chair of the Indian Academy of Science. In addition, he holds a visiting professorship at the Beijing Normal University and at the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India.

Ashtekar's research also has been described widely in popular and semi-popular media, sometimes as cover stories. Publications and media outlets that have reported on his research include Nature, Science, The Economist, U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, New Scientist, Fox News, MSNBC, and many other international publications and news sources. In addition, Ashtekar was featured in the 2008 German documentary Kosmos, which was prepared in celebration of German physicist Max Planck's 150th birthday. He also was featured prominently in a documentary shown at the year-long Berlin Einstein Exhibit in 2005. A YouTube video on the research carried out in his group in loop quantum cosmology has received over 400,000 views.

Ashtekar has mentored 28 Ph.D. students and over 78 post-doctoral scholars through his career. More than 60 of his advisees hold faculty positions all over the world, many holding prestigious chairs. Before joining the faculty at Penn State, Ashtekar held positions as professor, distinguished professor, and the Erastus Franklin Holden Professor of Physics at Syracuse University from 1984 to 1993. Previously, he was professor and held the chair of gravitation at the University of Paris VI in France.

Following his retirement from Penn State, Ashtekar is continuing to actively pursuing his research on theoretical aspects of general relativity and quantum gravity, focusing on four fundamental issues. He will be speaking at conferences and workshops, writing monographs and review articles, and continuing to serve on editorial boards of journals, such as an associate divisional editor at Physical Review Letters and an editor-in-chief at Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics.

George Andrews

George Andrews

Andrews has been a member of the Penn State faculty since 1964 and was named Evan Pugh Professor of Mathematics in 1981. He served as chair of the department from 1980 to 1982 and from 1995 to 1997. During his career at Penn State, Andrews has served as thesis adviser for 27 doctoral candidates and for numerous master's degree students.

“To say that George’s record is exceptional is an understatement,” said Mark Levi, department head and professor of mathematics. “This title allows for the continued participation in these activities. The department and the University will benefit greatly from George’s presence.”

Andrews is considered to be a world pioneer in the mathematical fields of partitions and q-series, and his contributions include numerous scientific papers and several books. He is an authority on the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the great Indian mathematical genius of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1976, Andrews rediscovered Ramanujan's Lost Notebook, a finding that changed the shape of modern q-series research.

Andrews has received many honors and awards. In 1982, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997, the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2009, and the American Mathematical Society in 2012. He has received honorary degrees from the University of Parma (Italy) in 1998, the University of Florida in 2002, The University of Waterloo (Canada) in 2004, SASTRA University (India) in 2012, and the University of Illinois 2014. In 1999, Andrews received the Centennial Award from the Department of Mathematics of the University of Pennsylvania "in recognition of contributions to pure mathematics and mathematics education." In 2008, he was named one of three finalists for Baylor University's Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, the single largest award given to an individual for exceptional teaching.

Andrews was President of the American Mathematical Society from 2008-2010. In 2011, he was appointed to an honorary professorship at Nankai University (China). In 2013, Imperial College Press published a 1,012-page volume titled, “The Selected Works of George E. Andrews”; a second equally long volume is in preparation. He was made a member of the scientific honor society Sigma Xi in 2021. In 2020, named Andrews one of the 35 most influential mathematicians in the world. In 2023, Andrews received the Eular Medal from the Institute of Combinatorics and Its Applications for "... distinguished lifetime career contributions to combinatorial research."

In 1960, Andrews earned simultaneous bachelor's and master's degrees at Oregon State University. In 1964, he earned a doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After retirement, he continues a high level of engagement as an emeritus faculty member.

Andrews is participating in a research seminar this semester and has recently prepared three papers that have opened up significant new research areas. His work on these new topics is facilitated by collaboration with Peter Paule who runs major computational facilities at the Research Institute for Symbolic Computation (RISC in Linz, Austria). Andrews is planning to bring Paule to Penn State for a month in summer 2023, with support from Andrews' Simons Foundation Grant. This work has greatly increased the possible applications of partition analysis to new settings, and Andrews and Paule are now beginning to pursue further aspects of this line of research.

About the Atherton Professorship

The Atherton Professorship, under the sponsorship of the Office of the Provost and the administration of the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, invites applications for membership from Penn State Evan Pugh Professors who are retiring from the University and who wish to continue a high level of engagement as an emeritus faculty member.

Atherton Professors typically engage in the pursuit of scholarly or creative activities, leadership, or outreach in one or more of the following ways:
• Obtaining external funding to support ongoing research;
• Current and future publications of research papers and/or books;
• Leadership in learned societies and/or scholarly journals;
• Solicited lectures, performances, or exhibits.

Selection as an Atherton Professor is for an initial term of three years with the possibility of renewal. Atherton Professors may negotiate to receive support from their units such as funding, office space, or administrative support but do not retain any funding or privileges associated with their Evan Pugh Professorship. Atherton Professors may petition the Graduate School to retain their graduate faculty status during the term of their appointment as an Atherton Professor.