An imaginative mind has won first-year UCSB physics graduate student Brian Camley free tuition and $28,000 per year for five years through the Hertz Foundation.

Camley recently became one of 15 candidates to earn the 2006-07 Fannie and John Hertz Fellowship, an award that has supported promising graduate work in the physical sciences since 1957. Originally from Colorado, Camley has combined the study of mathematics and physics to answer such open-ended questions as how many possible fingerprints exist in the world, what number of tollbooths should be set up per lane to optimize traffic and how to set up sprinklers to water a lawn most efficiently.

While he now has school paid for and the additional funds to pursue his passions, Camley has yet to whittle down his options and pick a specific research project.

“There are a number of people I want to work with,” Camley said. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff. One guy is modeling forest fires, another is dealing with superconductors and there’s also biophysics research.”

The winners of the fellowship are to use their specialties to help the American public, he said.

“We offer our service to our country when needed,” Camley said. “It’s not a legal obligation, but a moral thing.”

Camley said part of the fellowship’s application process involved interviews where he had to answer open-ended mathematics questions.

“From my standpoint, they want to see if you can come up with interesting ideas,” Camley said. “And they’re looking for people who have fun during these interviews.”

Despite his award-winning ability, Camley said he had not always been interested in physics and mathematics. He said he enjoys reading science fiction and modern classics – such as works from Jorge Luis Borges – but attempts to write as well.

“I was trying to avoid following after my father, who’s a physicist,” Camley said. “I was convinced I wanted to do anything else. I just wanted to do something different.”

One of Camley’s research projects at the University of Colorado at Boulder involved calculating how many fingerprints possibly existed, as well as how law enforcement should identify suspects using such evidence. Investigators, he said, compare patterns of breaks or endings in the ridges of a fingerprint – called minutiae and bifurcations – to match fingerprints.

Camley said the FBI considers 12 matching minutiae a good match.

“Using this standard, the probability of two people in the FBI’s files sharing a fingerprint is 1 in 10 billion,” Camley said.

Camley said the importance of using a 12-match standard is that lower standards increase the probability of confusing fingerprints and thus the likelihood of wrongly accusing someone. He said he further confirmed this with his analysis.

“If you only use a 6-match standard, then the probability jumps to 1 in 3 billion,” Camley said. “In the Madrid bombing, they tried charging a guy using only a 4-5 matching standard. It turned out the guy hadn’t even been in Madrid.”

This project, along with two others, was published in the UMAP Journal under the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications, a nonprofit organization promoting mathematics education.

As for his honors thesis, titled “Polymerization in a Smectic Liquid Crystal,” Camley focused on how the behavior of polymers, which are large compounds of smaller molecules, would affect a liquid crystal. Camley said a phenomenon, known as Brownian motion, causes particles in a fluid to randomly jiggle around, as if they did a “random walk.”

“A little bit of polymer will stick to another polymer, and soon you’ll have just a few large polymers,” Camley said. “It’s known as the ‘random walks with random traps’ problem.”

Camley said his work has made some progress in such a problem, and it could have future applications in describing polymerization in a smectic liquid crystal.

The graduate student has a few more years ahead of him in which to study fingerprints, random walks or whatever else he desires, but he said he was glad to do so at UCSB.

“When I talked to professors and grad students, they always sounded excited,” Camley said. “They enjoyed what they were doing, and this is what I wanted to be.”