2 UC Berkeley faculty win New Horizons Prizes for research

From left to right: Geoff Penington, Song Sun

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Two UC Berkeley faculty — assistant professor in physics Geoff Penington and associate professor in mathematics Song Sun — received New Horizons Prizes for their research.

Promising early career scientists and mathematicians are awarded a New Horizons Prize for making a substantial impact in their fields, according to a press release. Penington won the physics award for his research resolving a puzzle on the “deep conflict between quantum mechanics and gravity, in particular the behavior of black holes,” according to Stephen Shenker, a professor at Stanford University who aided Penington in his research.

The 12 winners of the New Horizons Prize, who were announced Thursday, shared six $100,000 awards. The Milner Foundation funds the prize, and past winners choose the next slate of winners, according to Penington.

“The people deciding on the prizes are previous prize winners who are very respected people in the field,” Penington said. “It’s very nice to have them think that my work is worthy of this recognition.”

Three others shared the physics prize with Penington: Ahmed Almheiri, Netta Engelhardt and Henry Maxfield, all of whom simultaneously and independently researched a similar subject, according to Shenker.

Penington’s first paper, titled “Entanglement Wedge Reconstruction and the Information Paradox,” won him the prize, said Shenker. Penington also co-authored a follow-up paper to his initial publication with Shenker, Douglas Stanford and Zhenbin Yang.

“He made the most important advance in many years in helping to resolve a deep puzzle first formulated by Stephen Hawking more than 40 years ago,”  Shenker said in an email. “Geoff’s work gave a clear indication that Hawking left something out, and that something can restore quantum coherence.”

The follow-up paper clarified Hawking left out a “kind of wormhole in spacetime,” according to Shenker.

The other recipient from UC Berkeley, Sun, won the mathematics award for his research involving groundbreaking contributions to complex differential geometry.

Sun collaborated with his Ph.D. adviser Xiuxiong Chen and his postdoctoral mentor Simon Donaldson over many years, and in 2013 he began his research in differential geometry with connections to complex algebraic geometry, according to Sun.

“I mainly work on differential geometry, with connections to complex algebraic geometry,” Sun said in an email. “This is a fascinating area that lies at the intersection of different mathematical branches and many techniques can come into play.”

Sun said he began his research during his Ph.D. program and will continue to work on this subject matter.

In addition to his collaboration with his colleagues, Sun also enjoys working and discussing mathematics with younger researchers, as well as postdoctoral and graduate students.

“I am very happy to receive this prize,” Sun said in the email. “It means a kind of recognition of my research work in the past, and it certainly encourages me to make more progress in the future.

Shylie Ati is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shylieati.