Penn’s Charles Kane Named Simons Investigator and Awarded $500,000 Grant

PHILADELPHIA — Charles Kane of the University of Pennsylvania has been awarded a five-year,  $500,000 grant from the Simons Foundation, as part of its inaugural class of Simons Investigators.

Similar to the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grants,” the prize comes from the nonprofit with no strings attached. It is intended to enable the researchers to undertake long-term study of fundamental questions in theoretical fields.     

Kane, a professor of physics in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics and Astronomy, was surprised. None of the 21 mathematicians, theoretical physicists and theoretical computer scientists who were awarded was aware he or she had been nominated by the foundation’s selection board until receiving an e-mail detailing the terms of the grant.

“I had heard that the Simons Foundation was going to do something like this, but I didn’t know any of the details,” Kane said. “This came completely out of the blue. When I get an e-mail that says ‘Congratulations,’ my first instinct is to delete it. I’m glad I didn’t.” 

The award was in recognition for his work in the physics that govern the behavior of electrons in different kinds of materials and structures. Kane’s major contribution in this field is his theory of topological insulators, for which he shared the 2012 Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society and the 2011 Europhysics Prize of the European Physical Society.    

“A topological insulator is an insulator in that it doesn’t conduct electricity on the inside, but it does conduct electricity in a very special way on its surface,” Kane said. “If you combine these materials with a superconductor, you can create a state that hosts an exotic particle known as a Majorana fermion, which in principle provides a route to making a kind of quantum computer.”

The grant comes with additional $100,000 that goes to the department and University. At the end of the five years, the foundation will consider Kane’s work for an additional five years of funding.