The TYC asks 10 questions to leading scientists and engineers to give some insight into their work, interests and heroes...

This time we talk to Professor Kieron Burke who will be speaking at a TYC Highlight Seminar - Density Functional Theory - A Great Success Story - on Thursday 28th February.

Professor Burke works in the Departments of Chemistry and Physics at the University of California, Irvine.

We asked him...

1) What is the best thing about your job?

Discovering new knowledge that can be applied to improve people’s lives; constantly learning new stuff; watching students grow into mature scientists; having tenure, a ridiculously antiquated concept.


2) What projects are you working on at the moment?

Many diverse projects, all centered on developing density functional theory and extending its applications.  Fields we work in include chemistry, physics, materials science, math, and computer science.  I work in about 6 areas simultaneously (currently, strong correlation, molecular electronics, plasma physics, quantum chemistry, asymptotic analysis for functional development in molecules and materials, excitations via TDDFT, and machine learning) and work with collaborators in South Korea, Germany, Spain, etc.


3) What is the most amazing single thing you could tell me about your field of research?

That the number of papers applying the theory is now over 10,000 per year, and continues to grow exponentially.  This is very unusual for theoretical research.  This means it’s a theory worth working on, and other folks care about my results.


4) What is the biggest problem or challenge you face in your field?

The important thing about DFT is NOT the exact theory, but that very simple and crude approximations work as well as they do.  We do NOT understand why at any fundamental level.  I believe if we had that understanding, we could make much better, more systematic approximations.


5) What, from your area of research, would you like to know the answer to in your lifetime?

How to perform the asymptotic expansion in terms of particle number that may give the answer to Q4 for an arbitrary system.  I have worked on this for 7 years now, and hope to make faster progress over the next 7-20 years.


6) What makes a good scientist or engineer?

Oddly, the definition of a good scientist is simply one whose peers decide is good.  There are many different ways of achieving this, ranging from managing large groups while directing the science, to having brilliant insight while working alone (rarer these days).


7) Who are your scientific heroes - dead or alive?

Walter Kohn, John Perdew, Paul Dirac, Isaac Newton.


8) How do you think scientists can make their work accessible to the public?

Most scientists are terrible at doing this, for very good reasons.  Usually, the best way is to explain their science to a good (non-scientist) writer, have that person write about it, and use that explanation in place of their own.


9) What is your advice for anyone wanting to be a scientist or engineer?

I can only comment on theory/computation.   In that case, make sure you understand the math you need very well.

For all problems, find the simplest case that illustrates the problem you are addressing, and check your reasoning to the utmost.  Doing this from the very start will make a huge difference in our modern, computer-driven era.


10) Any last comments?



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