John J. Hopfield Named Winner of 2019 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics

Prolific scientist John J. Hopfield, whose work has spanned various fundamental disciplines from physics to molecular biology to neuroscience, has been selected as the recipient of the 2019 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics. This prestigious award recognizes excellence in science and technology and honors modern-day exemplars of revolutionary thought in the model of Benjamin Franklin.

The selection committee cited Hopfield for applying concepts of theoretical physics to provide new insights on important biological questions in a variety of areas, including neuroscience and genetics, with a significant impact on machine learning.

Over the years, Hopfield’s research has advanced our underlying understanding of the human brain, applying its mechanisms to solve complex computational problems. The beginning of the modern era of neural networks can be traced to his pioneering work in the early 1980s. His research has also examined “thinking” and “perception” and the intersections between these two ideas.

“This is a remarkably appropriate award,” stated Arnold J. Levine, Professor Emeritus in the School of Natural Sciences, who established the Simons Center for Systems Biology. “John’s first contribution to biology, on the fidelity of genetic information transfer, was a tremendous advance in biological science. His second contribution was to create artificial neural networks that reflect the elements of neurobiology but are firmly related to physics. The activity of 'neurons' in these networks changes with time and with the input information, and this dynamic behavior can act in the manner of an associative memory.”

His work is a rare example of the bridge between basic research and applied concepts, demonstrating the insight that can be gleaned from seemingly unrelated fields—a frequently realized benefit of scholarship at the Institute.

“John’s early ’80s work on associative memory models has made a huge impact on the communities of physicists, neuroscientists, and machine learning researchers,” stated Dmitry Krotov, former Member in the School of Natural Sciences, who worked with Hopfield as a postdoctoral researcher and is now a research staff member at MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. “The idea of having an energy function, which describes a state space of a neural network, found numerous applications in studying complex systems with rugged landscapes; inspired the development of Restricted Boltzmann Machines, which were instrumental in the early days of deep learning; and established a conceptual mathematical formalization of the notion of memory in cognitive and neuro sciences.”

Hopfield served as the Martin A. and Helen Chooljian Visiting Professor in Biology in the School of Natural Sciences from 2010 to 2013. He remains active within the Institute’s Simons Center for Systems Biology, which concentrates on research at the interface of molecular biology and the physical sciences.

Hopfield received his A.B. from Swarthmore College in 1954, and a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University in 1958.

In addition to his Institute appointment, Hopfield was the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, Princeton (1979–80), the Roscoe G. Dickinson Professor of Chemistry and Biology, Caltech (1980–1996), and Howard A. Prior Professor of Molecular Biology, Princeton (2002–2008).

He serves as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Buckley Prize (1969), the MacArthur Award (1983–88), and the Dirac Medal (2001).

Past Franklin Institute laureates include Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Rudolf Diesel, Pierre and Marie Curie, Orville Wright, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edmund Bacon, Marshall Warren Nirenberg, Jacques Cousteau, Mildred Cohn, Stephen Hawking, Paul Baran, Gordon Moore, Jane Goodall, Herb Kelleher, Elizabeth Blackburn, Bill Gates, Dean Kamen, Subra Suresh, Michael Dell, and IAS Trustee and former Natural Sciences Member Martin Rees.

Awards will be presented at a gala ceremony and dinner on Thursday, April 11, 2019, in the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

Read more about the 2019 Franklin Institute laureates here.


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