President Obama announced earlier this month that Berni Alder, professor emeritus of applied physics, will receive the National Medal of Science for a lifetime of research with molecular dynamics.
Alder, 84, is a retired physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, LLNL, and a cofounder of the UC Davis Applied Science Department. He will be awarded the medal on Oct. 7 in a White House ceremony with eight other eminent scientists and researchers.
“These scientists, engineers and inventors are national icons, embodying the very best of American ingenuity and inspiring a new generation of thinkers and innovators,” President Obama said in a written statement. “Their extraordinary achievements strengthen our nation everyday – not just intellectually and technologically, but economically, by helping create new industries and opportunities that others before them could never have imagined.“
Candidates for the medal are nominated by a committee of presidential appointees based on their advanced knowledge of various fields of science.
Many recognize Alder as the founder of molecular dynamics, or a computer simulation of particle movement approximations. To this end, he and colleague Stan Frankel developed the Monte Carlo computational technique to help predict the movement of atoms under various conditions. The technique is now widely used for calculating results from random sampling.
“It’s a great honor when other people are using the equations you helped to initiate,” Alder said. “It was a puzzle that [Frankel and I] wanted to solve. The equations we used just began to be very broadly used.“
During a time when electronic computers were just gaining recognition, Alder saw their potential in solving equations to the physics problems he and his colleagues at LLNL were working on in the early 1950s. At LLNL, technicians and researchers had access to some of the only electronic computers in the country.
“He decided to try to devise new ways of using those electronic computers to their optimum capability,” said Yin Yeh, chair of the Department of Applied Science and colleague of Alder’s. “He’s not afraid of the new technologies and he constantly learns about them and challenges them and utilizes them to their full potential.”
Alder also helped found the UC Davis Department of Applied Science in 1963, which offers both undergraduate and graduate courses in physical sciences and engineering at UC Davis and the LLNL.
“Education has always been a frontier for Berni,” Yeh said.
While Alder feels especially honored to receive the National Medal of Science, he added that his Boltzmann award, given by physicians in his field was one of the proudest moments of his academic career. He received the award in 2001.
Alder still works three afternoons a week with the Livermore lab’s Quantum Simulations Group, using his Monte Carlo method to study quantum mechanics.
“Science is a beautiful field,” Alder said. “You can make great discoveries. I encourage everyone I meet to take it up.“
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.