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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory
Reconstructed vortex rings inside a magnetic micropillar. Credit: Claire Donnelly

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC) has awarded a Critical Mass Grant to Theory of Condensed Matter researchers at the University of Cambridge. The £3.67million grant will enable them to advance their world-leading research, which will focus on the study of dynamical phenomena.


The flexible, long-term funding that the Critical Mass Grant provides will allow us to continue to undertake innovative, high risk, high reward research that, historically, has had significant impact.Mike Payne

Condensed matter physics is the study of the macroscopic and mesoscopic properties of matter of very diverse forms – spanning new electronic materials, soft matter and complex fluids, as well as biological systems. Condensed matter theory seeks to gain a deep understanding of phenomena observed in nature, either in the laboratory or in the natural world, and to use these insights to predict new behaviours and inspire new directions for experimental design and investigation.

To develop this approach, the Cambridge theorists construct models of physical and chemical processes that are often inspired by experimental discoveries. For some applications, these models may be derived from a basic knowledge of the fundamental interactions of constituent particles, building up from the atomic scale, often from the quantum dynamics of electrons and atomic nuclei; in other cases, they may be abstractions inspired by experimental phenomenology.

Researchers then make use of computational and analytical approaches to explore and refine these models to capture and explain known experimental properties and, crucially, to make testable predictions about new phenomena.

At the heart of this approach is the reliance on theoretical concepts and methodologies that can be shared and translated across apparently disparate subject areas, and the grant will bring together cross-disciplinary collaborators from the Cavendish Laboratory, the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. The four-year funding will provide the flexibility to recruit highly skilled post-doctoral researchers who can benefit from engagement with a cohort of investigators, enabling them to strengthen and create new collaborations, open new areas of research, and advance their own ideas.

Professor Mike Payne, Principal Investigator of the Grant, said:

"We are very appreciative of the support we have received from EPSRC over many years. The flexible, long-term funding that the Critical Mass Grant provides will allow us to continue to undertake innovative, high risk, high reward research that, historically, has had significant impact.

"This new grant will support a broad range of theoretical condensed matter research, ranging from materials to living matter, all of which is linked by the common theme of dynamics.

"It will also enable us to continue achieving an unparalleled track record in developing and supporting Young Researchers in their early careers."

Professor Andy Parker, head of the Cavendish Laboratory said:

“By placing emphasis on ‘emergent’ or collective behaviours of complex systems, the models studied by our theorists can often provide insight into disparate fields of research, spanning across areas of physics, chemistry, material science and biology.

“As a result, our theoretical research activities are often interdisciplinary in character, contributing both to creating fundamental knowledge and providing practical applications of modelling to new and existing technologies.”

Professor Payne added:

“The Cavendish Condensed Matter Theory group discovered methods to create topological states in cold atom systems, applied statistical physics methods to biological systems to uncover a new understanding of cell division in skin cancer. They also developed methods that connect solid state nuclear magnetic resonance spectra to the underlying atomic structure which has become a crucial tool for researchers investigating atomic scale processes that take place in lithium-ion batteries.”

“This extraordinary level of critical innovation and industrial impact would not be possible without the continuous support of EPSRC.”

Jane Nicholson, EPSRC Director for Research Base, said:

“This programme of work will generate valuable new knowledge about dynamical phenomena which could be used to broaden our understanding of living systems and inform the design of new technologies.

“EPSRC is committed to supporting adventurous, ideas-driven research that generates new knowledge and can ultimately lead to impact across a range of fields and sectors.”


Reconstructed vortex rings inside a magnetic micropillar. Credit: Claire Donnelly.

Magnetic vortex lines, predicted theoretically in the TCM group based on analogies to fluid dynamics, have recently been observed in experimental measurements.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. Our diverse portfolio ranges from digital technologies to clean energy, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry.

EPSRC invests in world-leading research and skills to advance knowledge and deliver a sustainable, resilient and prosperous UK. We support new ideas and transformative technologies which are the foundations of innovations that improve our economy, environment and society. In partnership and co-investing with industry, we work to deliver both national and global priorities.