MIT Reports to the President 1999–2000


Physics faculty members continue to receive recognition by the outside community. Robert Birgeneau received the Julius Edgar Lilienfield Prize from the American Physical Society. Mildred Dresselhaus was awarded the Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service from the American Physics Society and the Weizmann Women in Science Millennium Lifetime Achievement Award. Jerome Friedman received the Presidential Medal from the Institute of Physics. Marc Kastner was awarded The Oliver E. Buckley Prize in Condensed Matter Physics from the American Physical Society. Wolfgang Ketterle received The Benjamin Franklin Award in Physics from the Franklin Institute and the Dannie-Heineman Prize from the Academy of Sciences, Gottingen, Germany. John King was awarded the Oersted Medal by the American Association of Physics Teachers. Philip Morrison and his wife Phylis received the National Science Board Public Service Award from the National Science Board. We are proud that several of these awards are for contributions to science education.

Xiao-Gang Wen, Jacqueline Hewitt, and Barton Zweibach were promoted to full Professor. Takashi Imai was promoted to Associate Professor without tenure. New faculty in the department are Gunther Roland, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and Frank Wuerthwein, who have all been appointed Assistant Professor. We are delighted that one of the leading particle theorists in the world, Frank Wilczek, has joined our faculty to become the first Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics.


This year the department begins an ambitious program to see if freshman physics education can be made more exciting. We propose to establish a "technology enabled active learning" (TEAL) environment for large enrollment physics courses at MIT, which will serve as a national model for such instruction. We will merge lecture, recitations, and hands-on laboratory experience into a technologically and collaboratively rich experience for incoming freshmen. A dozen or so students will gather, with ten or so such groups in a common area, for five hours per week. They will be exposed to a mixture of formal instruction, lab work with desktop experiments, and collaborative work in smaller groups of three or four, in a computer rich environment (one networked laptop per three students).

The degree of S.B. in Physics provides MIT students an unsurpassed preparation for graduate study in physics. However, many students, although strongly attracted to physics, have broader interests that will take them into different careers after graduation. We have, therefore, initiated a new degree that will provide students with an understanding of the fundamentals of physics and an appreciation of the physicist’s approach to problem solving, while requiring a focus in some area that will support career options other than a Ph.D. in physics.

The department has taken several steps in the past year to improve the graduate experience for our students. Although the mean time to a Ph.D. degree in the department (5.7 years) is consistent with the national average (6.1 years), we are concerned that some of our students were taking significantly longer than this. To address this we have established new rules governing the number of terms a student can be in the department before submitting a thesis proposal and having a thesis committee appointed.


The MIT Department of Physics is in the forefront in producing minority Ph.D.’s. To recruit new minority graduate students, we have continued to support our students’ membership in the National Conference of Black Physics Students (NCBPS) and the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). Despite these efforts, the pool of qualified minority candidates for graduate school remains extremely small and qualified students are aggressively recruited by all our competitors. The same is true of women. While the fraction of women students is higher than for most institutions it is still painfully small. Our women students have established an organization "Women in Physics at MIT" (see, which has become very active in the last year. This organization has received financial support from an alumna of our department.

The department has acted aggressively to attract women and minority faculty members. For the academic year 2000—2001, we have made two offers to women, one of whom has already accepted.


Neil Pappalardo has made possible a new program in the department to support individuals of exceptional promise, who have recently received, or who are about to receive, a doctoral degree in Physics, Astronomy, or related fields. One of the features that distinguishes the sciences in general, and physics in particular, is the importance of the accomplishments of outstanding individuals. The purpose of the Pappalardo Fellowships in Physics is to identify and support unusually talented young physicists, and to provide them with the opportunity to pursue research of their own choosing.

The Pappalardo Executive Board selects three fellows each year on the basis of their demonstrated talent, accomplishments, originality, and capacity for independent work. The fellows are appointed for three-year terms with a stipend higher than typically postdoctoral fellows and a small amount of discretionary funds for travel or other research expenses. The Pappalardo Fellows have complete freedom in their choice of research and are matched with a mentor chosen on the basis of their research interests. Fellows meet for lunch once per week and for dinner once per month, along with the Executive Board, mentors, and their guests. The first three Fellows will begin their appointments in September of 2000.


Most physics research is done through participation of our faculty in labs and centers. The research of the Physics Department faculty is specifically addressed in the following lab and center reports: Laboratory for Nuclear Science, including the Bates Linear Accelerator Center and the Center for Theoretical Physics; the Center for Materials Science and Engineering; the Research Laboratory of Electronics; the Center for Space Research; the Plasma Fusion Center; the Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory; and the Haystack Observatory. Rather than an overview, we discuss here a few highlights to give a sense of the excitement of research in the department.

Lisa Randall is one of the world’s experts on extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics and on exotic experimental signatures for new physics at high energies that would tell us what extensions are correct; her field is called particle phenomenology. This year she received great attention for incorporating the idea of extra dimensions, developed by string theorists, into particle phenomenology.

The Standard Model describes all the known fundamental particles and their interactions. We know that hadrons are composed of quarks that interchange gluons; quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory that describes how quarks and gluons interact. At short distances, inter-quark forces are weak, and QCD describes them with great precision. As quarks move apart, however, the forces between them become extremely strong, making it impossible for quarks to exist in isolation. However, during the big bang, the temperature was so high and the density of quarks was so high, that new states of quark matter may have existed. Krishna Rajagopal has predicted some of the properties of these states of matter, some of which may be created in collisions of heavy ions. The major MIT experimental effort in heavy-ion physics is the PHOBOS detector under the leadership of Wit Busza, Leslie Rosenberg, and Boleslaw Wyslouch. PHOBOS has observed the first collisions at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) this spring. The coming year will be the one in which new physics emerges.

The Magellan telescopes, to be dedicated in December of this year, will allow MIT astronomers to compete with Caltech and University of California in studying objects at what is, effectively, the edge of the universe. Objects to be studied include gamma ray bursts, supernovae, high redshift galaxies, and gravitational lenses.

LIGO is a $300 Million NSF project to measure gravitational radiation heretofore undetected, most probably from compact objects. The dedication of the two observatories, one in Louisiana and one in Washington State took place in February. MIT and Caltech are the two lead institutions. Weiss has played a very important leadership role in the development of instrumentation for LIGO.

The department has a strong presence in X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy. The group includes Hale Bradt, Claude Canizares, Deepto Chakrabarty, Walter Lewin, and Saul Rappaport. Bradt is nearing retirement and Chakrabarty is the only junior faculty member. The Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO) is one of NASA’s four "great" observatories, CXO gives the same improvement in resolution at X-ray wavelengths that the Hubble Space telescope gives at optical wavelengths. Two of the instruments on CXO were developed at MIT, and the science center is split between MIT and Harvard/Smithsonian. Wonderful discoveries have already been made by CXO and many more are anticipated.

Thousands of gamma-ray bursts have been detected, but less than a dozen have been identified with specific objects, so that observations can be carried out at other wavelengths. HETE (High Energy Transient Explorer) is an MIT project has been localizing approximately one burst per week since January 2000.

Birgeneau and Kastner are involved in a collaboration that discovered waves of magnetic ordering in high temperature superconductors. This is very surprising since it is widely believed that magnetic ordering and superconductivity should compete with each other. Tadashi Imai has used nuclear resonance to find waves of charge ordering as well.


Professor Toyoichi Tanaka, a world leader widely recognized for his revolutionary discovery of phase transitions in polymer gels, died of heart failure on Saturday, May 20, while playing tennis. He was 54. Toyo will be deeply missed by his family, his friends, and colleagues at MIT and around the world. His death is a great loss to the scientific community as a whole.

Robert J. Birgeneau, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, became President of the University of Toronto on July 1, 2000. We are proud of Birgeneau’s new status as President of one of the greatest universities in the world, but will miss him in the department.

More information about this department can be found on the World Wide Web at

Marc Kastner

MIT Reports to the President 1999–2000