By Erin Weeks

Sometimes an age-old question just needs a fresh set of eyes.

That was the case in Duke’s physics department, where a graduate student and professor recently resolved a calculating dilemma that has vexed computational physicists for decades.

Emilie Huffman is a second-year PhD student from Charlotte, North Carolina. Last spring she began working with Shailesh Chandrasekharan, an associate professor and the director of graduate studies in physics, on what’s known as a sign problem.

Chandrasekharan is a theoretical nuclear and particle physicist who specializes in solving sign problems, which arise when one uses certain computational algorithms to calculate the behavior of large numbers of particles called fermions.

“Almost all the matter we know of are made with fermions,” Chandrasekharan said. “As building blocks of matter, it’s very important to be able to do calculations with them.”

But calculations of such complexity get tricky, and sign problems make it easy for wrong results to surface.

“It’s a very broad problem that affects almost all fields of physics involving quantum mechanics with strong correlations, where Monte Carlo methods are essential to perform calculations,” Chandrasekharan said.

Some in the field have simply moved on since the 1980s, leaving interesting questions plagued by sign problems unexplored. Other scientists have found workarounds and approximations. Very few, including Chandrasekharan, have tried to figure out solutions through the years. Huffman began work to expand on one of her advisor’s solutions, involving a grouping concept called fermion bags, and apply them to a new class of problems.

“She finally figured out a nice formula,” Chandrasekharan said. “Although the formula is quite simple and elegant, I couldn’t guess it.”

“In physics, often there’s a truth, and if you’re hitting on the right truth, everything starts falling into place.” Chandrasekharan says that’s what happened when he began applying Huffman’s formula to a class of problems.

Their paper appeared recently in the journal Physical Review B’s Rapid Communications.

“Now that I have a solution, I can begin to apply it,” Huffman said. Starting with condensed matter physics, Huffman plans to apply her solution to various questions that have been stymied by sign problems. “I can use this solution to study properties of graphene,” she said, referring to the single-layer carbon that has been touted as the strongest material in the world. Many puzzles remain in the field, especially involving multi-layer graphene sheets.

Wherever she turns her attention next, it’s clear Huffman has a promising career ahead.

Citation: “Solution to sign problems in half-filled spin-polarized electronic systems,” Emilie Huffman and Shailesh Chandrasekharan. Physical Review B Rapid Communications, March 12, 2014. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevB.89.111101.