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James Sethna



Educational Background

BA, 1977, Physics, Harvard University. PhD , 1981, Princeton University. Postdoctoral research associate, Cornell University, 1981-84. Postdoctoral research associate, Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara, 1981-84. Assistant Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1984-89. Associate Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1989-95. Professor, Physics, Cornell University, 1995-present. Sloan Research Fellow, 1985. Presidential Young Investigator Award, 1985.



Materials science, including crackling noise and avalanches in magnetic systems, tweed in shape-memory alloys, accelerated simulations of surface growth, Arrhenius law for double jumps; glasses, including metallic glasses, low temperature glasses, slow relaxation, and scaling theories of the glass transition; disordered systems, including Griffiths phase in spin glasses, spin glasses on the Bethe lattice, sliding charge-density waves; liquid crystals; Blue Phases as networks of defect lines and in curved space; boojums in chiral smectic films; quantum instanton methods for atomic tunneling; early Berry's phase work in high-temperature superconductors; atomic tunneling from an STM/AFM tip; theory of vortex core states in superconductors; dynamical systems, including transition to chaos from quasiperiodic motion using renormalization group; noise in crumpling paper; dynamics of cell membranes and twisted DNA.


  • Physics

Graduate Fields

  • Physics
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Biophysics
  • Computational Biology
  • Computational Science and Engineering


  • Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics (LASSP)
  • Center for Applied Mathematics (CAM)
  • Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR)


We’ve recently been interested how multiparameter models in many fields of physics (from systems biology to cosmology) have collective behavior which depends only loosely on their parameters; these sloppy models work in some ways for the same reasons that underly the continuum limits and the renormalization group. In materials physics, we are exploring plastic deformation and dislocation dynamics in metals – our models show fractal dislocation structures and earthquake-like crackling noise. We have recent interests in Bayesian and machine learning methods, applied to economics and also to experimental data analysis. We are also working on nonlinear scaling variables in the renormalization group, on theories of jamming, on scaling ideas for fracture, on building better superconductors for particle physics, and a number of other projects.

Graduate Students
Colin Clement, Lorien Hayden, Katherine Quinn, Archishman Raju, Jaron Kent-Dobias



Weirdest martensite: Smectic liquid crystal microstructure and Weyl-Poincaré invariance, Danilo B. Liarte, Matthew Bierbaum, Ricardo A. Mosna, Randall D. Kamien, and James P. Sethna, Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 147802 (2016), pdf. (Cover story and Editor's Choice for PRL, Cornell chronicle story, and "Two different crystals can be described by the same mathematical rules", by Lisa Zyga at

You Can Run, You Can Hide: The Epidemiology and Statistical Mechanics of Zombies, Alexander A. Alemi, Matthew Bierbaum, Christopher R. Myers, and James P. Sethna Phys. Rev. E 92, 022146 (2015). Much national media coverage (over 75 articles in the first week, starting with Popular Science, New Scientist, and the Washington Post; over half a million hits on both the Zombie simulator and the photo views.)

Perspective: Sloppiness and Emergent Theories in Physics, Biology, and Beyond, Mark K. Transtrum, Benjamin B. Machta, Kevin S. Brown, Bryan C. Daniels, Christopher R. Myers, and James P. Sethna

Parameter Space Compression Underlies Emergent Theories and Predictive Models, Benjamin B. Machta, Ricky Chachra, Mark K. Transtrum, James P. Sethna, Science 342, 604-607 (2013); pdffull text. See also Physicists unify the structure of scientific theories in the Cornell Chronicle (Anne Ju); Jesse Silverberg'sHuffington Post blog and Kathryn McGill's vblog Soft Matters with Jim Sethna from The Physics Factor; and(Unedited) Interview of Sethna by Steven Reiner, Stony Brook School of Journalism

Collective motion of humans in mosh and circle pits at heavy metal concerts, Jesse L. Silverberg, Matthew Bierbaum, James P. Sethna, and Itai Cohen, Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 228701 (2013)pdf. Extensive press coverage (AtlanticPhysics WorldPopular ScienceNew ScientistNBCNational Geographic ...); full listing at Silverberg's Mosh-pit page