UCC scientist becomes first Irish person to win major US physics award

11 Oct 2022

Prof Séamus Davis of University College Cork. Image: Tomas Tyner/UCC

Prof Séamus Davis of UCC has been awarded the Buckley Physics Prize for his work in developing quantum microscopes.

Prof Séamus Davis has made history by becoming the first Irish recipient of the prestigious Buckley Physics Prize, in recognition of his work in the field of quantum physics.

Awarded annually by the American Physical Society, the Oliver E Buckley Condensed Matter Prize is given to individuals who have made “outstanding theoretical or experimental contributions to condensed matter physics”.

18 previous winners of the award have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Davis is professor of quantum physics at University College Cork (UCC). In January, he was elected as a fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science for his work in the field at UCC and the University of Oxford.

The Buckley Physics Prize 2023 recognises 25 years of work done by the Skibbereen native in developing quantum microscopes that allow direct atomic-scale imaging of quantum matter existing within advanced materials.

Quantum equivalent of space exploration

While new materials are constantly created in laboratories around the world, Davis said the conventional method of making observations, theorising and testing to understand the materials can take years – if not decades – to develop a full profile.

“What we have done is developed approaches and designs that allow us to extract direct atomic-scale imaging of even the most complex electronic structure, giving us an almost instant and complete profile of these materials,” he explained.

He used the analogy of advancements in space exploration to explain his work.

“Scientists have long held theories about our galaxy and beyond – but now we are sending huge telescopes into space which are capturing images which are giving us the proof of what is out there. We are doing something similar, with the inner space of quantum materials.”

With its inception in University of California Berkeley in the 1990s, Davis’s concept of the quantum microscope matured in Cornell University before becoming operational at UCC.

“This work has spanned 25 years and there have been hundreds of contributors in that time – too many to thank individually,” he added.

UCC president Prof John O’Halloran congratulated Davis for the accolade recognising his role in “leading some of the world’s greatest discoveries in quantum physics”.

“We are so lucky to have Seamus leading out this groundbreaking work, generously supported by Science Foundation Ireland. Quantum and photonics are one of the recently announced thematic areas for UCC Futures research and this award will give further momentum to this initiative.”

Last month, an international team of researchers led by Davis made a splash after solving a 40-year-old ‘holy grail’ physics problem, uncovering the atomic mechanism behind room-temperature superconductors and potentially paving the way for super-efficient electrical power.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic