Thanks to William K. "Bill" Davis (BS '60), who passed away in February 2023, Caltech has a new endowed professorship in theoretical physics. The gift advances a discipline that captivated Davis all his life, but one he ultimately did not pursue at Caltech.
Condensed matter physicist Jason Alicea, the inaugural William K. Davis Professor of Theoretical Physics, called the appointment the "biggest professional honor of my career."
Preparing to Thrive in a Business Environment
Davis grew up in Long Beach, California, and worked from a young age to help support his family. He attended Jordan High School, where a math teacher saw his potential and encouraged him to apply to Caltech.
Davis was not only accepted at Caltech, but also received a full scholarship. He was drawn to the fields of physics and cosmology and initially majored in physics.
He also swam—a lot. As a member of the Masters Swim Club, he won several national first-place competitions in the breaststroke. His swimming talent was apparent from the beginning of his time at Caltech. During his first year, he won the 200-yard breaststroke in a faster time than the winning varsity team at the All-Conference Swimming Meet and broke Caltech's frosh records in both the 100- and 200-yard events.
On the academic front, Davis switched his major to electrical engineering during his junior year. "He realized he needed a degree that could be used in a business environment," his wife, Robyn Davis explains.
The strategy paid off. After graduation, Davis founded two successful technology companies before launching a commercial real estate and property development firm in 1972. Davis Partners operated according to three principles Davis set forth at the inception of his firm: treating people well, being self-accountable, and working diligently.
Throughout his business ventures, Davis continued to follow developments in cosmology and theoretical physics. His interest heightened when, later in life, he met Caltech's Kip Thorne (BS ‘62). Now the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, Thorne received the Nobel Prize in 2017 for his role in developing the LIGO detector that proved the existence of gravitational waves.
"Bill was proud and honored to be a graduate of Caltech," Robyn Davis says. "He was humbled by the brilliance of current students and what he imagined they would contribute to the future of the planet. So, it was always in his plan to support the school. When he hit it off with Kip, that was the tipping point."
Rewiring the Brain
Alicea's academic journey was the opposite of Davis's. As an undergrad at the University of Florida, Alicea initially majored in engineering and gravitated toward physics only after taking courses during his sophomore year.
Despite his fascination with the discipline, physics didn't come naturally to him, he says. "I struggled quite a bit. I felt like I had to rewire my brain to think like a physicist, but it was very satisfying to be able to perform that rewiring and look at the world in an entirely different way."
Alicea especially enjoyed the challenge of theoretical physics, with its emphasis on fundamental science questions. He switched his major to physics in his junior year.
Over the past decade, Alicea and his group have focused on figuring out how to create, manipulate, and probe exotic phases of matter, often with the goal of exploiting their remarkable properties for quantum information processing.
"I am endlessly fascinated by the idea that certain materials can give birth to entirely new kinds of particles that behave strikingly differently from the elementary particles that make up our universe," Alicea says.
Recently, for example, Alicea and Caltech experimental physicist Steven Nadj-Perge revealed how single-layer sheets of carbon atoms known as graphene, when twisted and layered atop one another in just the right way, can produce unusual electrical properties, including superconductivity. The scientists also showed that this special form of graphene can be harnessed to engineer exotic phases of matter with implications for quantum information processing.
An Amazing Honor
Alicea, who was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and an assistant professor at UC Irvine before returning to the Institute, says he was initially nervous about joining the faculty. But his jitters have long since disappeared.
"I quickly realized how supportive Caltech is," he says. "That support allows us to do the best science we possibly can. I genuinely love being here every day and interacting with a phenomenally talented Caltech community. It's a highly collaborative environment. We get some truly outstanding postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates who are a tremendous joy to work with. The people Caltech recruits are what makes this place so special."
Alicea's appointment to the Davis Professorship means he has more resources to hire personnel, including the talented students who inspired Bill Davis's confidence in the future. "In some cases, the professorship might allow me to support exceptional students or postdocs who might not be able to come to Caltech otherwise," Alicea says. "It's just an amazing honor and something I never expected to happen to me."