Department of Physics

The Department of Physics has been a national resource since the turn of the century. It has been at the center of the twentieth-century revolution in understanding the nature of matter and energy and the dynamics of the cosmos. Department faculty—three of whom hold Nobel prizes and 23 of whom are members of the National Academy of Sciences—include leaders in nearly every major area of physics. The department is currently ranked number one for PhD programs by US News & World Report.

Honors and Awards

The following Physics faculty members received recognition from the outside community in the last year: Ulrich Becker received a recognition letter from NASA for success in the first AMS flight; Mildred Dresselhaus received a medal of achievement in carbon science and technology from the American Carbon Society; Jerome Friedman received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York; Mehran Kardar was recipient of both the John Simon Guggenheim fellowship and a prestigious Miller visiting professorship at University of California, Berkeley; Wolfgang Ketterle won the Nobel prize in physics 2001, was elected foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences, and presented both the Bodo von Borries lecture at the University of Tübingen and Konopinski public lecture at Indiana University; Daniel Kleppner was inducted into the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France and asked to present the prestigous National Academy of Science's Robertson memorial lecture; Gunther Roland received the US Department of Energy outstanding junior investigator award; Paul Schechter received a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship; Senthil Todadri received the Alfred P. Sloan research fellowship; Frank Wilczek was named the editor-in-chief for Annals of Physics, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montreal, and received the Michelson-Morley prize from Case Western University.

In addition, the following faculty members received recognition of their accomplishments at MIT: Deepto Chakrabarty received the 2001 Buechner teaching prize in physics. Thomas Greytak was named a Cambridge University MIT Institute fellow in recognition of his significant contributions to and interest in the CMI Student Exchange; Jacqueline Hewitt was promoted to the director of the Center for Space Research; Erich Ippen was awarded the James R. Killian, Jr., faculty achievement award; former vice president for research, David Litster, was awarded the Irwin Sizer award for the most significant improvement in MIT education; and David Pritchard was awarded the Cecil and Ida Green professor of physics; Alexander van Oudenaarden was named the Keck career development professor in biomedical engineering; and Barton Zweibach received the Everett Moore Baker memorial award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Assistant Professor Haiyan Gao was promoted to associate professor, Assistant Professor Washington Taylor was promoted to associate professor with tenure and then to full professor, and tenured Associate Professor Boleslaw Wyslouch was promoted to full professor. Joint appointments were made for Professor Daniel Freedman from the Mathematics Department and Assistant Professor Leonid Mirny, from the Division of Health Sciences and Technology. New faculty members in the department are Assistant Professors Eric Hudson, Scott Hughes, and Iain Stewart and Adjunct Professor David Moncton. Visting Professor Sekazi Mtingwa was appointed a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor for AY2002 and will continue in this position for AY2003. In January 2003, Arlie Peters, currently an associate professor at Duke University will join the department as an Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor.


We have begun implementing a plan to move most of freshman physics away from the standard lecture-recitation format. In the new TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) format developed by John Belcher, students work together in groups of three in an open classroom environment. Each group has a computer and their own set of tabletop experiments. During a typical class the students may do experiments, take data and analyze the results, or watch more elaborate experiments done by the instructor and download the data. They may also watch video clips, simulations, or visualizations projected on screens around the room. Students are expected to have studied the text before coming to class, but the instructor may give mini-lectures about difficult concepts or special topics. A discussion may follow during which students can work at white boards around the room and have their work picked up by a video camera and displayed for the entire class. A specially designed TEAL classroom was opened in September 2001 on the site of the former physics reading room on the first floor of Building 26. The first experience with TEAL was in 8.02 Electricity and Magnetism during the fall 2001 semester. There were two classes with about 90 students in each. By all measures the classes were a great success. The format will be used again in fall 2002, and for the first time with the large 8.02 offering in spring 2003.

The serious decline in physics majors at MIT has been reversed by introducing a new degree program, VIII-B, leading to a bachelor of science in physics. VIII-B requires fewer specific upper level subjects in physics than our traditional VIII program. VIII-B students choose a coherent set of three "focus" subjects that build on a physics foundation. We designed this new degree path to appeal to students who enjoyed physics but did not plan to go on for a PhD in physics, in particular those who wished to follow non-traditional career paths. To our surprise we found that the freedom of choice offered by the program was also attractive to students who did expect to pursue a doctorate in physics. In 2001, the first year the new program was offered, the number of SB degrees in physics rose to 54 from the previous year's 35. The number relaxed a bit in 2002 to 47, but this does not take into account an anomalously large number students who have chosen to remain at MIT for a fifth year, many of them completing a second or third degree.

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The Department of Physics is in the forefront in producing minority PhDs. 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 continues to support North American under-represented scholar's through the Physics Department Head fellowships. The department continues to fund 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. To further our goals, we are working with MLK visiting professor and former MIT alum Sekazi Mtingwa to identify additional methods to increase the diversity of our community. Towards this end, the department has retained the services of a minority-owned search firm specializing in the recruitment of underrepresented minorities in the sciences.

Our percentage of women is higher than for most institutions, but still quite 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. The group actively recruits female candidates to the program (i.e., they host a reception during Open House for female candidates and they telephone individual female candidates). This year, they organized a dinner open to all undergraduates to discuss graduate school in physics, physics research at MIT and career choices in general. The event was so successful that it will be held annually. In addition, beginning this fall we are going to initiate a mentoring program for female undergraduate physics majors at MIT. The program was developed to foster a closer interaction between undergraduate and graduate physics students to benefit both groups of women. All these activities are listed on their web site This group also receives financial support from a generous alumna of our department.

In sum, the department continues to aggressively recruit and retain underrepresented minorities and women to the department.

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Pappalardo Fellowships in Physics

In 2000, Mr. A. Neil Pappalardo, EE '64, provided the funds to initiate and sustain a program for physics fellows, the Pappalardo fellowships in physics. He recognized that one of the features that distinguish the sciences in general, and physics in particular, is the importance of the accomplishments of outstanding individuals. Thus, the mission of the Pappalardo fellowships in physics is to sustain a preeminent postdoctoral program that identifies, recruits and supports the most talented and promising young physicists at an early stage in their careers. The program appoints three new fellows per academic year for three-year terms, up to a maximum membership of nine fellows. The fellows enjoy unrestricted choice of research direction; active faculty mentoring through weekly luncheons and monthly dinners designed to foster scientific exchange and promote professional growth; a competitive annual stipend with a built-in cost-of-living increase combined with $5,000 per year discretionary funds; and health insurance coverage for fellows and their dependents.

Research Highlights

Noisy Genes

Noise is often perceived as being undesirable and unpredictable. The experimental physicist spends a lot of time trying to lower the noise floor of the experimental set-up to a level that enables the detection of tiny signals. In biology, however, noise is intrinsic to living systems and cannot be controlled by the experimentalist. Living systems are inherently noisy, and are optimized to function in the presence of fluctuations. In this context, evolution plays the role of the experimentalist in trying to control the noise. During evolution biological cells have been fine tuned and optimized to function in noisy environments, but it's not clear what the biological function of noise is. Does noise increase or decrease the fitness of a cell? In the van Oudenaarden group, we both develop theoretical models and conduct quantitative experiments to elucidate the functional role of noise in genetic and biochemical reactions. (Adapted from "Noisy Genes" by Professor Alexander van Oudenaarden, physics@mit Fall 2002.)

Inflation and the New Era of High-Precision Cosmology

During the past five years our view of the universe has been jolted by several new and surprising observations. Instead of slowing due to gravitational attraction, the expansion of the universe has found to be speeding up! Shortly afterward new measurements of the cosmic background radiation overturned the prevailing beliefs about the geometry and total mass density of the universe. According to the New York Times of November 26, 1999, "Like the great navigators who first sailed around the world, establishing its size and the curvature of its surface, astronomers have made new observations that show with startling directness the large-scale geometry of the universe and the total amount of matter and energy that it contains....All the data are consistent with a flat universe, said scientists on the projects and others who have read the teams' reports." The combined results of these observations have led to a new picture of our universe, in which the dominant ingredient is a mysterious substance dubbed "dark energy." The second most abundant material is "dark matter," and the ordinary matter that we are made of has been relegated to third place. Although substantially different from what was believed just a few years before, the new picture is beautifully consistent with the predictions of inflationary cosmology. (Adapted from "Inflation and the New Era of High-Precision Cosmology" by Professor Alan H. Guth, physics@mit Fall 2002.)

Marc Kastner
Department Head
Donner Professor of Science

More information on the Physics Department can be found online at


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