Department of Physics

Physics faculty members continue to receive recognition by the outside community. Claude Canizares received two NASA Public Service Medals for Chandra and Service; Deepto Chakrabarty and Alexander van Oudenaarden received Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships; Bruno Coppi was Knighted Great Officer of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy; Mildred Dresselhaus received the National Materials Advancement Award of the Federation of Materials Societies, the Karl T. Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics of the American Institute of Physics and was elected Honorary Member of the Ioffe Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences; Alan Guth won the Robinson Prize in Cosmology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics, Franklin Institute; Daniel Kleppner was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (honora causa), Williams College; Ernest J. Moniz received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Athens, Greece and the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany, as well as the Seymour Cray HPCC Industry Recognition Award; Rainer Weiss was Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Associate Professor Peter Fisher was promoted to Full Professor with tenure. Associate Professor Uwe-Jens Weise received tenure, Assistant Professor Krishna Rajagopal was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure, and Assistant Professor Fredric Rasio was promoted to Associate Professor. New faculty members in the department are Assistant Professors Scott Burles, Erotokritos Katsavounidis, Young Lee, Kate Scholberg, and Senthil Todadri.


The department has made its reading room available as the first space for the "technology enabled active learning" (TEAL) experiment in freshman physics education. We will merge lecture, recitations, and hands-on laboratory experience into a technologically and collaboratively rich experience. A dozen or so students will gather at a round table, with ten or so tables in the large reading room space, 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 reading room will be temporarily housed on the third floor of Building 4 until a permanent location is prepared.

Our standard S.B. degree 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 initiation of this degree has turned around the decline in the number of physics majors that we have experienced continuously for more than 30 years.


The Department of Physics is in the forefront in producing minority Ph.D.'s. To recruit new minority graduate students, the Department continues to support students' membership in the National Conference of Black Physics Students (NCBPS) and the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). The department created Physics Department Head Fellowships (equivalent to the Presidential Fellowships) that are targeted for North American under-represented candidates. We also commit to funding all travel expenses for under-represented North American candidates, as well as all North American female candidates. Despite these efforts, the pool of qualified minority candidates for graduate school remains extremely small, and the qualified students are aggressively recruited by the competition.

The same is true of women. While the fraction of women students is higher than for most institutions, it is still painfully small. We support the Women in Physics group, which consists of current female graduate students, by providing space and funding for bi-weekly dinners and other events. In addition, the group is active in recruiting female candidates to the program (i.e., they host a reception during Open House for female candidates and they telephone individual female candidates). This organization has received financial support from an alumna of our department.

The department continues to aggressively recruit and retain underrepresented minorities and women for faculty positions. This past year, the department recruited an outstanding female scientist, Kate Scholberg, an experimental elementary particle physicist.

return to top

Pappalardo Fellows in Physics

Neil Pappalardo has made possible a program in the department to recent Ph.D.'s of exceptional promise. 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 first three fellows arrived in September of 2000 and the second three will arrive in the fall. 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.

Research Highlighs

Heavy Ion Collisions

When nuclei collide at relativistic velocities, a region of space is created with extremely high energy density. The higher the velocity of the colliding nuclei, the higher is the produced energy density. It is expected that at sufficiently high velocities a new state of matter will be created, the so-called Quark-Gluon Plasma (QGP), in which quarks and gluons are free and not confined, as they normally are in protons and neutrons. The QGP is the state in which the whole universe found itself, up to about ten microseconds after the big bang. Last summer the world's highest energy nuclear collider (RHIC) was commissioned at Brookhaven National Laboratory. MIT is leading "Phobos" a major research project designed to study the collisions produced at RHIC. The Phobos collaboration has had a very good year. The Phobos detector is performing better than expected, and, as a result, Phobos, rather than the other detectors, has obtained the first physics results from RHIC. These results have had a significant impact on the field. They show that a high energy density and high pressure region filled with quarks is created at RHIC. The energy density is lower than original expectations for RHIC but it should be high enough for the formation of the QGP. Detailed studies are on the way in search for direct evidence of the formation of the QGP and other new phenomena. Three faculty members are involved in Phobos, Wit Busza, Gunther Roland and Bolek Wyslouch. There are also seven graduate students, seven research staff and several UROP students. Studies with Phobos at RHIC will continue for at least the next three or four years. In five or six years a new energy frontier will be opened when the LHC collider is completed at CERN in Europe. The MIT group has already begun planning for probing the even higher energy densities that will become available at CERN.

Vortex Lattices in Bose-Einstein Condensate

When a quantum-mechanical particle moves in a circle the circumference of the orbit must be an integer multiple of the de Broglie wavelength. If one spins a normal liquid in a bucket, the fluid will rotate as a rigid body, in which the velocity smoothly increases from the center to the edge. However, for particles in a single quantum state such as a Bose-Einstein Condensate, the flow field must develop an array of vortices, which are whirlpools similar to tornados or the flow of water in a flushing toilet. The whirlpools in a Bose-Einstein condensate are quantized - when an atom goes around the vortex core, its quantum mechanical phase changes by exactly 2(. Wolfgang Ketterle's group has recently observed the formation of highly ordered vortex lattices in a rotating Bose-condensed gas. Stirring the condensate with a laser beam, sets it into rotation, and causes as many as 100 vortices in the gas cloud. Since the vortex cores are smaller than the optical resolution, the gas is allowed to expand (without collisions) after the magnetic trap, in which it was created, is switched off. This magnifies the spatial structures twenty fold. A shadow picture of these clouds shows little bright spots where the light penetrates through the empty vortex cores.

A striking feature of the observed vortex lattices is the extreme regularity, free of any major distortions, even near the boundary. Such "Abrikosov" lattices were first predicted for quantized magnetic flux lines in type-II superconductors.

Marc Kastner

More information on the Physics Department can be found online at

return to top
Table of Contents