About MIT Physics

 

Headquarters

Department of Physics, 4-304
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4800
fax: 617.253.8554
email: physics@mit.edu

Academic Programs

Department of Physics, 4-315
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4841
fax: 617.258.8319
email: physics@mit.edu
Undergraduate email:
physics-undergrad@mit.edu
Graduate email:
physics-grad@mit.edu

Physics in the Present World : 1971-2010

WEATHERING THE STORM

Henry W. Kendall, shown here as a graduate student at MIT experimenting with high intensity microwave excited glow discharge.  Years later he would win, along with Jerome I. Friedman, the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Henry W. Kendall, shown here as a graduate student at MIT experimenting with high intensity microwave excited glow discharge. Years later he would win, along with Jerome I. Friedman, the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a difficult time for physics in the United States as other areas of science blossomed, in particular modern molecular biology. MIT was not exempt from the burst of the physics bubble, but it weathered it extremely well. Though it faced a drop-off in enrollments, awarded degrees, and faculty members from its Sputnik-era levels, it was able to maintain a large measure of stability in its overall activities, and did much better in terms of numbers of graduates than did the physics discipline as a whole.

Throughout this period, MIT remained one of the top-ranked physics departments in the country, both in terms of education and research. One of the factors behind its stability was the tradition of interdepartmental laboratories developed after the Second World War. By the 1990s, MIT Physics personnel were prominently involved in at least eight separate interdepartmental labs: the Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS), the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), the Bates Linear Accelerator Center, the Center for Materials Science and Engineering (CMSE), the Center for Space Research (now Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research), the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), the Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory, and the Haystack Observatory.

THE NOBELISTS

Samuel C.C. Ting along with a data proving the existence of the new 'J' particle, the work for which he shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Samuel C.C. Ting along with a data proving the existence of the new 'J' particle, the work for which he shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics.

During its history, over twenty-five Nobel Laureates for Physics have had connections to MIT as alumni (including Richard Feynman, William Shockley, Murray Gell-Mann, John Robert Schrieffer, Burton Richter, Henry M. Kendall,William D. Phillips, Robert B. Laughlin, Eric Cornell, Carl E. Wieman, and George Smoot), as faculty (including Samuel C.C. Ting, Steven Weinberg, Jerome I. Friedman, Clifford G. Shull, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Frank Wilczek), or as Radiation Laboratory employees (I.I. Rabi, Edwin M. McMillan, Edward M. Purcell, Julian Schwinger, Hans Bethe, Luis W. Alvarez, and Norman. F. Ramsey).

FRIEDMAN AND KENDALL PROVE THE QUARK

Four Nobelists received their prizes for work done while on the MIT faculty. The first two were Jerome I. Friedman and Henry W. Kendall. Friedman joined the MIT Physics Department in 1960, working at the Harvard-MIT electron synchotron, testing the validity of quantum electrodynamics; Kendall, who had been a MIT Physics graduate student in the 1950s, joined the faculty in 1961 and became a part of Friedman's research group. Using the brand-new accelerator at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), in 1967-1968, they used a stream of accelerated electrons to prove that protons were made up of tiny particles, later identified as quarks. For this work, Friedman, Kendall, and the Stanford physicist Richard E. Taylor were jointly awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics.

TING FINDS THE J PARTICLE

MIT physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, was one of the first in the world to create a new state of matter, the Bose-Einstein Condensate, and to probe its properties.
MIT physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, was one of the first in the world to create a new state of matter, the Bose-Einstein Condensate, and to probe its properties.

The third Nobelist whose prize came from work done while on the faculty at MIT was Samuel C.C. Ting, who had come to MIT in 1969. In 1974, Ting's group used the Alternating Gradient Synchotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory to discover a new subatomic particle, which Ting dubbed the "J" particle, consisting of a charm quark paired with a charm anti-quark. The same particle was also independently discovered just a bit later by a group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center led by MIT Physics alumni Burton Richter (who called it the "psi" particle; today it is known as the "J/psi" particle). These dual discoveries of a new particle provided the first confirmation of the existence of one of the six "flavors" of quarks, the charm quark. For this work, Ting and Richter shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics.

KETTERLE CREATES A NEW STATE OF MATTER

The fourth Nobelist whose winning work was completed while he was working at MIT was Wolfgang Ketterle. Ketterle had arrived at MIT in 1990 as a postdoctoral student working for David E. Pritchard. Ketterle was appointed as assistant professor in 1993 and developed new ways to makde clouds of ultra-cold atoms at a relatively high density. Two years later, Ketterle's team manage to produce an elusive state of matter known as the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC).

Frank Wilczek waited over 30 years to receive the Nobel Prize for his theoretical work.
Frank Wilczek waited over 30 years to receive the Nobel Prize for his theoretical work.

The possibility of the BEC had been predicted by Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose seventy years earlier. In a BEC,the atoms lose their individual identities and behave in a cooperative, wave-like manner, similar to the way that light particles behave in a laser. The first creation of a BEC had been done just a few months before Ketterle's team produced it -- by a team working independently at the University of Colorado, Boulder, led by Eric Cornell and Carl E. Wieman (both MIT Physics alumni) -- but Ketterle's method allowed for a greater number of atoms made into the BEC, and thus allowed for the observation of a wider range of associated phenomena and possible applications. For their work on Bose-Einstein Condensates, and their early studies into their behavior and composition, Ketterle, Cornell, and Wieman jointly shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics.

WILCZEK DISCOVERS ASYMPTOTIC FREEDOM

Another Nobelist received his prize while on the MIT faculty though the work itself had been done prior to coming to MIT. Frank Wilczek came to the MIT Physics Department in 2000, but had begun his prize-winning work in 1972. In short, Wilczek and his advisor at Princeton University, David Gross, discovered asymptotic freedom, a theoretical concept meaning that quarks -- the fundamental particles that make up protons and many other particles -- have less nuclear force the closer they are. This proved to be an important and useful concept, becoming a cornerstone of the sub-discipline known as quantum chromodynamics. Wilczek, Gross, and H. David Politzer (who independently discovered the same concept) were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics; in the intervening years, Wilczek further developed his reputation as a shrewd theoretical physicist with diverse research interests.

Photo of students in the Pappalardo Community Room, one of the many rooms of the Green Center, which will bring together the MIT physics community as a site for collaboration and research.
Photo of students in the Pappalardo Community Room, one of the many rooms of the Green Center, which will bring together the MIT physics community as a site for collaboration and research.

PHYSICS IN THE 21ST CENTURY

By the year 2000, the Physics Department was spread over 13 buildings on campus. The Green Center for Physics was conceived to bring together many of these activities in a central location. With the inclusion of the department headquarters and teaching support services, the Green Center is also a place where faculty from the remaining buildings are certain to meet and interact. The creation of the Green Center for Physics guarantees that the proud tradition of MIT Physics will extend into the twenty-first century, providing a stage for new frontiers of research and continuing excellence in education.

Bibliography

For information about the MIT Physics Nobel Prizes, their own official Nobel speeches and autobiographies have been most helpful. Statistics on the department's enrollments and degrees compiled from the annual Reports to the President; they have been compared against statistics on the discipline as a whole retrieved from the American Institute of Physics.

For the account of the boom-and-bust of physics PhD's in the Cold War, see David Kaiser, "Cold War requisitions, scientific manpower, and the production of American physicists after World War II," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 33, no. 1 (2002): 131-159.