Dynamic Duo of UCSB Professors Elected to National Academy of Science



Parisa Mirzadegan

Photo Courtesy UCSB

Quantum physics and anthropology may sound intimidating to most people, but for University of California Santa Barbara professors Matthew Fisher and Napoleon Chagnon, the subjects are second nature- and for a good reason. Their research in the two fields resulted in their recent election to the National Academy of Sciences, making the pair two among the 84 new US members of the prestigious NAS. They joined the ranks of 34 other active UCSB faculty members, as well as approximately 2,200 members and 400 foreign associates, in their election to the Academy on May 1.

Approximately 200 current NAS members have received Nobel prizes for work in their respective fields. According to the Academy’s website, “[members] are elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive.”

“We are easily among the top 10 universities in the country for science, as measured by the number of members elected to the National Academy of Sciences in the last few years,” said Michael Witherell, UCSB’s vice chancellor for research, in a press release. “The Physics Department is doing particularly well, with one new member elected in each of the last four years.”

Fisher was elected to NAS for his research in UCSB’s Department of Physics, which he has been a part of since 1993.

“We’re trying to understand nature’s quantum choreography that emerges when we have many atoms and electrons in certain materials,” he said in regard to his work within the department.

In a press release, he added that “Theoretical quantum physics, especially concerning the collective quantum behavior of electrons in crystalline solids, has been my passion for many years, and this honor reflects the great strides that our field has made over the past few decades.”

Quantum theory physics was developed in the late 1920s, and has evolved to its current state through intensive research such as the progress made at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, a world-renowned research institute of UCSB founded in 1979.

“It has been an amazing success for enabling us to hire theoretical physicists from all over the world,” said Fisher.

He cites collaboration as a vital part of the research that lead to his election to the NAS.

“The National Academy of Sciences is an institution which consists of members who are leading scientists throughout the country and in all different fields of science,” said Fisher. “They’re just brilliant, inspiring people, and to be asked to join an organization by people I respect is an honor.”

Chagnon, a professor emeritus who retired in 1999 after 15 years at UCSB, devoted much of his time to research of the Yanomamö Indians of South America. His book titled “Noble Savages,” which will be released in January 2013, discusses the controversy surrounding his anthropological research of the tribe. Numerous colleagues of Chagnon have overturned the claim by Patrick Tiernan, a self-described “anthropological journalist,” that Chagnon and colleagues introduced measles to the Yanomamö tribe.

“My election to the National Academy of Sciences is a kind of victory for those of us who regard science and its methods as the most certain route to understanding the world around us- including and especially our own behavior,” Chagnon said in a press release. “In the end, my defense of the scientific method won.”

“Scientists sometimes get stuck with a bad rap,” said Fisher, “but science is one of the most amazing creative endeavors. It is such a high pushing the knowledge frontier, seeking absolute truths of nature independent of all cultural norms.”