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Toner Recipient of The Lars Onsager Prize

John Toner was frustrated during his final year with IBM in 1993. The industry giant, amid the internet-fueled technological explosion, was giving up fundamental research, his specialty, to pursue applied science to stay competitive.

But a lecture by a visiting researcher, which he almost didn’t attend, reignited this passion and called on his knowledge of fluid mechanics. In his final project at IBM, which he started while considering a job offer from the University of Oregon, he teamed with a young new colleague, Yuhai Tu, to dig deeper into the speaker’s topic.

Within a day, Toner and Tu wrote a short equation that explained how the motion of individual birds in a flock affects the motion of neighboring birds.

That formula has landed Toner, Tu and that day’s speaker, Hungarian scientist Tamás Vicsek, the Lars Onsager Prize from the American Physical Society “for seminal work on the theory of flocking that marked the birth and contributed greatly to the development of the field of active

The Lars Onsager Prize, among 39 prizes announced by the society this fall, has local significance. It was established in 1993 by UO physicist Russ Donnelly, who died in 2015, and his wife Marian in memory of their friend Lars Onsager, a physical chemist and theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1968. Two previous winners of the Onsager prize later won Nobel Prizes.

“I had heard from a colleague that when Russ founded this award it was his hope that somebody from the UO would win it,” said Toner, a professor of physics, as he sat in front of a chalkboard filled with equations. “I’m honored to win this award, which is for theoretical statistical physics.”

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