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Non-equilibrium Statistical Mechanics: a growing frontier of "pure and applied" theoretical physics


Founded over a century ago, statistical mechanics for systems in thermal
equilibrium has been so successful that, nowadays, it forms part of our
physics core curriculum. On the other hand, most of  "real life" phenomena
occur under non-equilibrium conditions. Unfortunately, statistical mechanics
for such systems is far from being well established. The goal of
understanding complex collective behavior from simple microscopic rules (of
evolution, say) remains elusive. As an example of the difficulties we face,
consider predicting the existence of a tree from an appropriate collection
of H,O,C,N,... atoms!

Over the last two decades, an increasing number of condensed matter
theorists are devoting their efforts to this frontier. After a brief summary
of the crucial differences between text-book equilibrium statistical
mechanics and its non-equilibrium counterpart, I will give a  bird's-eye
view of some key issues, ranging from  the "fundamental" to (a small set of)
the "applied."  The methods used also span a wide spectrum, from "easy"
computer simulations to sophisticated field theoretic techniques. These will
be illustrated in the context of an overview of our projects at Virginia