Northeastern’s Barabási receives prestigious prize from the American Physical Society

Albert-László Barabási looks at 3D network models laid out on a desk
Robert Gray Dodge professor of network science and distinguished university professor of physics. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The American Physical Society selected Northeastern University professor Albert-László Barabási to receive the 2023 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize for his innovative work on the statistical physics of networks. 

The APS chose Barabási “for pioneering work on the statistical physics of networks that transformed the study of complex systems, and for lasting contributions in communicating the significance of this rapidly developing field to a broad range of audiences,” said Frances Hellman, APS president.

Headshot of Albert-László Barabási
Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge professor of network science and distinguished university professor of physics. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“I am very delighted, because this is the first award that I am getting from the American Physical Society, which is my intellectual home,” said Barabasi, Robert Gray Dodge professor of network science and distinguished university professor of physics.

The APS has 50,000 members globally, and it is a huge honor to be chosen across all fields of physics and out of a large number of great physicists, Barabási said.

Barabási will formally accept the prize at a ceremony during the APS annual leadership meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26.

Barabási was trained in statistical physics, a field of physics that studies behaviors of large collections of interacting objects and combines the principles and procedures of statistics with the laws of both classical and quantum mechanics. He received a doctorate degree in that area from Boston University. 

He currently heads the Center for Complex Network Research at the Northeastern Network Science Institute, where he investigates the hidden order behind various complex systems using the quantitative tools of network science, a research field that he pioneered. His work led to the discovery of scale-free networks in 1999, helping explain the emergence of many widespread natural, technological and social networks.

“I do consider it to be fully part of physics, to be more precise, of statistical physics,” Barabási said. “Network science is a very modern branch of that field which has grown very big.”

Now, network science attracts researchers from different disciplines, Barabási said, including computer scientists, sociologists, political scientists and biologists. 

Barabási is interested in a wide range of topics, including unveiling the structure of the brain, treating diseases using network medicine, mapping out success in art and studying how science really works. CCNR has studied complex metabolic and genetic networks inside a cell; topology of the World Wide Web, showing that webpages are on average 19 clicks away from each other; and how actors are connected in Hollywood, among many other subjects.

Barabási, who is Hungarian, grew up in the Transylvania region of Romania. Hungarian physicists and other scientists who made a big impact in their fields were a big inspiration for him as a child, he says. As a teenager, Barabási remembers reading about Jeno Wigner, who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1963, and John von Neumann, a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, best known for his work in the early development of computers.

“When you grew up in an environment where you have such a great set of predecessors in your small nation, there is no way that you are not aware of it. And that was certainly a big inspiration for me,” Barabási said.

The annual Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize was established in 1988 under the terms of a bequest of Beatrice Lilienfeld, wife of the prominent Austro-Hungarian and American physicist and electrical engineer. 

The Lilienfeld Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to physics and exceptional skills in lecturing to diverse audiences. It comes with a cash prize of $20,000, an invitation to give a talk at an APS meeting and three lectures at APS, at a research university and at a predominantly undergraduate institution, all expenses covered. 

The APS is a nonprofit membership organization that works to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics and represents physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the U.S. and throughout the world.

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