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   from the issue of March 31, 2005

Viewpoint variety spurs ORCA winner


Blinders are not an option for Anthony Starace.

Anthony Starace
Anthony Starace

From his childhood in New York City to his current post as George Homes Professor of Physics at UNL, seeing the world from different viewpoints is a way of life for Starace. And, for extending that unique perspective into the lab, Starace was awarded an Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award - the highest prize for research the state university system offers.

His research into strong field physics embraces the theoretical, distinct from experimental. Whereas experimental scientists work on tangible materials in labs, Starace uses computers to model experiments based on physics equations.

"I take known laws of physics and try to develop a mathematical model that explains what is happening," Starace said. "Much of the work is highly intensive."

Researchers in his group are the most active users of PrairieFire, a supercomputer located in the UNL Computer Science and Engineering facility in Lincoln's Miller and Paine building.

The seed for Starace's viewpoint variety was planted during his childhood and bloomed through education.

Starace grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City, "a wonderful place to grow up in the 1950s," he said. His father took him and his siblings to parks, parades, and museums, such as the Metropolitan Art Museum and the Natural History Museum, on Sunday mornings and early afternoons.

Starace qualified to attend Stuyvesant High School, a science magnet school in lower Manhattan. It was a very stimulating environment, Starace said, because others in the high-achieving group shared the same interest in science and mathematics.

It was a 35-minute commute each way from Queens, but other students in his neighborhood made the same trek and they became close friends. The commute was used to do homework or argue politics, mathematics science with each other.

"We argued all sorts of things at a high intellectual level," Starace said.

At the Stuyvesant school, there was a distinct pecking order.

"Math was top, physics second, and everything else ranked lower," Starace said. "I knew there were students there who were better at math than I was."

Physics looked like a challenge he wanted to take on. He obtained a bachelor of arts degree, cum laude, from Columbia University.

Starace went on to graduate study at the University of Chicago in 1966 and his timing couldn't have been better as Ugo Fano - the leading atomic theorist in the United States and possibly the world - also arrived on campus. And, Starace was able to work as a graduate student of Fano.

Physicists from around the world came to visit Fano, who had a distinguished career at the National Bureau of Standards.

"The fact that I worked on many different physics areas is part of the influence of Fano," Starace said. "People are getting too specialized today," Starace said.

As an example, as a graduate student studying atomic physics, Starace was trying to understand a particularly difficult feature in absorption of ultraviolet light by atoms. He was just working his way toward an explanation when a paper appeared that scooped him. The paper was by a relatively prominent nuclear physicist, but who was relatively unknown in atomic physics. Atomic science deals with the behavior of electrons that orbit a nucleus. Nuclear physics works with the nucleus itself, comprised of protons and neutrons.

"He applied standard approaches in nuclear physics to our atomic physics problem and solved it," Starace said. Since that experience, Starace has appreciated the value of keeping up with developments outside one's own specialty.

Starace is now an international leader in the theoretical study of photoionization processes, and in the interaction of strong electromagnetic fields with matter. He has written more than 150 cutting-edge articles to date and often advises other researchers worldwide in the field about what physics problems to work on.

As for the future, Starace plans to maintain a broad field of vision, dabbling further into his passions.



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