Education and research
David R. Nelson is currently the Arthur K. Solomon Professor of Biophysics and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. He graduated from Cornell University Summa cum laude with a double major in physics and mathematics in 1972, and received an M.S. in Theoretical Physics in 1974, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics in January, 1975. He was in the fourth and final class of Cornell's short-lived "Six-year Ph.D. program". He then became a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows.
Since 1978 he has been a professor at Harvard University. His research is in the fields of both hard and soft theoretical condensed matter physics, and of physical biology. His condensed matter research has focused on collective effects in the physics and chemistry of condensed matter and on spatial population genetics. He has been interested, in particular, in the interplay between fluctuations, geometry and statistical dynamics in condensed matter systems such as magnets, superfluids, liquid crystals, superconductors, polymers, turbulent fluids and metallic glasses. Nelson also has a strong interest in biological problems such as single molecule biophysics, population dynamics in inhomogeneous media, the buckling of viral shells and the effects of selective advantages, mutations, antagonism and cooperation on the spatial population genetics of microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast on both solid and liquid substrates.
With his colleague, Bertrand Halperin, he is responsible for a theory of two-dimensional melting that predicted a fourth "hexatic" phase of matter, interposed between the usual solid and liquid phases. A variety of predictions associated with this two-state freezing process have now been confirmed in experiments on two-dimensional colloidal assemblies, thin films and bulk smectic liquid crystals. Nelson's research also includes a theory of the structure and statistical mechanics of metallic glasses and investigations of "tethered surfaces,” which are two-dimensional generalizations of linear polymer chains. Flexural phonons lead a remarkable low temperature flat phase in these fishnet-like structures, with predictions of strongly scale-dependent elastic constants such as the two-dimensional Young’s modulus and the bending rigidity of atomically or molecularly thin materials such as a free-standing sheets of graphene and MoS2.
Nelson has also studied flux line entanglement in the high temperature superconductors. At high magnetic fields, thermal fluctuations cause regular arrays of flux lines to melt into a tangled spaghetti state. The physics of this melted flux liquid resembles that of a directed polymer melt, and has important implications for both electrical transport and vortex pinning for many of the proposed applications of these new materials in strong magnetic fields. David Nelson's recent investigations have focused on problems that bridge the gap between the physical and biological sciences, including dislocation dynamics in bacterial cell walls, range expansions and genetic demixing in microorganisms and localization in asymmetric sparse neural networks. Additional recent interests include the non-Hermitian transfer matrices that describe thermally excited vortices with columnar pins in Type II superconductors, the effect of perforations, cuts and other defects on atomically thin cantilevers at finite temperatures and topological defects on curved surfaces.
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- 2019 Niels Bohr Institute Medal of Honor
- 2013 KITP Simons Distinguished Visiting Scholar, UCSB
- 2010 Kavli Lectureship, Delft University
- 2009 Visiting Professor, Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen
- 2007 Primakoff Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania
- 2007 Mark Kac Memorial Lecturer, Los Alamos National Laboratory
- 2006 Lorentz Visiting Professor, Leiden
- 2006 Sommerfeld Lecturer, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich
- 2005 Mayent-Rothschild Visiting Professor, Institute Curie, Paris
- 2004 Mary Upson Visiting Professor, Cornell University
- 2004 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize
- 2003 Bardeen Prize (for research in superconductivity)
- 2001 Welsh Lectures, University of Toronto
- 1995 Harvard Ledlie Prize of Harvard University 
- 1993-1994 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1987 Elected Fellow of the American Physical Society 
- 1986 Award for Initiatives in Research from the National Academy of Sciences<ref name=bio>
- 1984-1989 MacArthur Prize Fellowship
- 1979-1983 AP Sloan Fellowship
- Nelson, David R.; Kosterlitz, J. M. (1977-11-07). "Universal Jump in the Superfluid Density of Two-Dimensional Superfluids". Physical Review Letters. American Physical Society (APS). 39 (19): 1201–1205. Bibcode:1977PhRvL..39.1201N. doi:10.1103/physrevlett.39.1201. ISSN 0031-9007.
- Nelson, David R.; Halperin, B. I. (1979-03-01). "Dislocation-mediated melting in two dimensions". Physical Review B. American Physical Society (APS). 19 (5): 2457–2484. Bibcode:1979PhRvB..19.2457N. doi:10.1103/physrevb.19.2457. ISSN 0163-1829.
- Nelson, David R. (1983-11-15). "Order, frustration, and defects in liquids and glasses". Physical Review B. American Physical Society (APS). 28 (10): 5515–5535. Bibcode:1983PhRvB..28.5515N. doi:10.1103/physrevb.28.5515. ISSN 0163-1829.
- Nelson, D.R.; Peliti, L. (1987). "Fluctuations in membranes with crystalline and hexatic order". Journal de Physique. EDP Sciences. 48 (7): 1085–1092. doi:10.1051/jphys:019870048070108500. ISSN 0302-0738.
- Nelson, David R. (1988-05-09). "Vortex Entanglement in High-Tc Superconductors". Physical Review Letters. American Physical Society (APS). 60 (19): 1973–1976. Bibcode:1988PhRvL..60.1973N. doi:10.1103/physrevlett.60.1973. ISSN 0031-9007. PMID 10038191.
- Nelson, David R.; Vinokur, V. M. (1993-11-01). "Boson localization and correlated pinning of superconducting vortex arrays". Physical Review B. American Physical Society (APS). 48 (17): 13060–13097. Bibcode:1993PhRvB..4813060N. doi:10.1103/physrevb.48.13060. ISSN 0163-1829. PMID 10007683.
- Hatano, Naomichi; Nelson, David R. (1997-10-01). "Vortex pinning and non-Hermitian quantum mechanics". Physical Review B. American Physical Society (APS). 56 (14): 8651–8673. arXiv:cond-mat/9705290. Bibcode:1997PhRvB..56.8651H. doi:10.1103/physrevb.56.8651. ISSN 0163-1829.
- Nelson, David R.; Shnerb, Nadav M. (1998-08-01). "Non-Hermitian localization and population biology". Physical Review E. American Physical Society (APS). 58 (2): 1383–1403. arXiv:cond-mat/9708071. Bibcode:1998PhRvE..58.1383N. doi:10.1103/physreve.58.1383. ISSN 1063-651X.
- Lubensky, David K.; Nelson, David R. (2002-03-06). "Single molecule statistics and the polynucleotide unzipping transition". Physical Review E. American Physical Society (APS). 65 (3): 031917. arXiv:cond-mat/0107423. Bibcode:2002PhRvE..65c1917L. doi:10.1103/physreve.65.031917. ISSN 1063-651X. PMID 11909119.
- "David R. Nelson". Radclffe Institute. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-06-22. Retrieved 2010-03-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "APS Fellow Archive". APS. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
- Video of NSCS Online Seminar: August 11, 2020
- Video of Harvard Physics Colloquium ("On Growth and Form of Microorganisms on Liquid Substrates"): April 20, 2020
- Video of Gene Surfing and Survival of the Luckiest: September 25, 2019
- Video of Keynote Address, [email protected] Veldhoven: January 24, 2014
- ISI Web of Knowledge Retrieved on 5 October 2009.
- "DNA unzipping and motor proteins: Effect of the genetic code" Retrieved on 5 October 2009.
- "David R. Nelson", Scientific Commons