Department of Physics

The Department of Physics has been a global resource since the turn of the 20th century. Our department has been at the center of the revolution in understanding the nature of matter and energy and the dynamics of the cosmos. Our faculty—3 of whom hold Nobel Prizes and 20 of whom are members of the National Academy of Sciences—include leaders in nearly every major area of physics. Other world leaders in science and engineering, including 10 Nobel Prize recipients, have been educated in the physics classrooms and laboratories at MIT. Alumni of the MIT Department of Physics are to be found on the faculties of the world's major universities and colleges, as well as our national research laboratories and every variety of industrial laboratory.

Honors and Awards

Many of the department's faculty members received honors and awards during the 2002-03 academic year. Professor Edmund Bertschinger received the Buechner Teaching Prize in Physics. Professor Bruno Coppi was designated the Distinguished Lecturer in Physics by the National University of Mexico Institute for Nuclear Physics and received an honorary doctorate from the Universita di Milano. Professor Michael Feld received the 2003 Willis E. Lamb Medal of the Physics of Quantum Electronics Society. Alan Guth received the 2002 Dirac Medal, a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, and was named the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Lecturer at the University of California, San Diego. Professor John Joannopoulos was given the MIT School of Science Prize for Graduate Teaching and was named an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow. Professor Wolfgang Ketterle received the Medal of Merit of Baden-Würtemberg and the Knight Commander's Cross (Badge and Star) of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Additionally, he was named a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, a member of the Academy of Sciences in Heidelberg, a fellow of the Institute of Physics, a member of the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, a was named the 2003 Saxon Lecturer of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

Professor Patrick Lee was a Miller Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Junior faculty member Young S. Lee received an NSF Career Award. The 2003 Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching was given to Professor Walter H. G. Lewin. Professor J. David Litster received the Irwin Sizer Award for the Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education. Professor Ernest Moniz was elected to the Council on Foreign Relations and was the Distinguished Lecturer on Science, Technology, and International Affairs, for Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Professor David Pritchard received the Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science. Kate Scholberg was named the Mitsui Career Development Assistant Professor. Professor Samuel Ting received an honorary doctorate from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Republic of China. Professor Senthil Todadri was given NEC Corporate Fund Award from the MIT Research Support Committee. Recently appointed junior faculty member Vladan Vuletic was awarded a Sloan Research Fellowship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Professor Xiao-Gang Wen was named an American Physical Society Fellow. Professor Frank Wilczek received the Lorentz Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society and was named the Schrodinger Professor. Professor Barton Zwiebach received the 2002 Everett Moore Baker Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and was awarded Class Funds for Educational Innovation to support the proposal "Developing a String Theory Course for Undergraduates."

Promotions this year were Amihay Hanany was promoted to associate professor and Uwe-Jens Wiese was promoted to full professor. A joint appointment was made for associate professor Isaac Chuang with the Media Lab. New faculty members in the department are assistant professors Bruce Knuteson, Hong Liu, Gabriella Sciolla, Bernd Surrow and Vladan Vuletic. Arlie Peters, a professor at Duke University, will continue as a Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor through the fall of 2003.

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In 2000, the department created a new undergraduate program leading to the bachelor of science in Physics. The purpose of the program, named 8-B, was twofold: to arrest the declining enrollment in physics, and to offer a less constrained option for those who enjoyed physics but planned to use it as a foundation for other career paths. The results of the past three years document the success of the program.

Both the 8 and 8-B programs lead to the same degree, a bachelor of science in Physics. 8-B requires fewer specific upper level subjects in physics. They are replaced by a student-designed three-subject "focus group" that builds on the earlier foundation subjects in physics. The subjects in the focus group are not restricted to physics but in general are chosen to prepare the student for a particular, though not necessarily traditional, career path. Our goal was to make 8-B as flexible as possible so that students can design a major that best fits their career goals in a changing technological world. Nevertheless, the degree is demanding: the number of required subjects in the sciences (including math), 17, is greater than the number of required subjects in the same category, 15, for the honors degree at Harvard. The new 8-B program was popular with the students from the start. We found that rather than using 8-B to lighten their academic loads, students were constructing rigorous programs in a particular area that appealed to them.

During the 1980s the number of SB degrees in physics at MIT had remained relatively constant at about 70. During the 1990s, however, the number of degrees decreased steadily, reaching a record low of 35 in 2000. The last three years, those in which the 8-B degree was offered, show a definite reversal of the previous downward trend. This year we awarded (64) SB degrees in physics, more than in any year since 1994. The number of physics majors in the sophomore and junior classes indicates that the trend is likely to continue. This year 48 percent of our graduates chose 8-B. Double degrees have always been popular with our graduates but have become more so recently. Forty-seven percent of our students received double degrees in the three years before the introduction of 8-B. This year 60 percent of the 8 students and 77 percent of the 8-B students received two degrees.

The 8-B program is just one of several successful initiatives relating to the academic side of the department in recent years. Others include changes in the number and content of our undergraduate subjects, a comprehensive review of our graduate program, and the creation of a studio-based version of freshman physics. All of these initiatives are part of an effort to keep up with the changing role of physics and physics-based careers in the modern world.

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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). North American under-represented scholars continue to be supported 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 qualified students are aggressively recruited by the competition. To further our goals, we are working with MLK Visiting Professor and former MIT alumnus Sekazi Mtingwa to identify additional methods to increase the diversity of our community. Towards this end, the department retained the services of a minority-owned search firm specializing in the recruitment of under-represented minorities in the sciences.

The department is extremely active in its efforts to recruit women from the relatively small pool of qualified female physicists. Our Pappalardo Fellowships Program has been successful in recruiting several promising female physicists including Arpita Upadhyaya, Marija Drndic, and Katherine Rawlins. Gabriella Sciolla, a former Pappalardo fellow, has recently joined our faculty as an assistant professor.

The department also supports 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 (by hosting a reception during Graduate Open House and telephoning individual female candidates). This year, the group 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. The Women in Physics group receives financial support from a generous alumna of the department.

In sum, the department continues to aggressively recruit and retain under-represented minorities and women.

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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 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 typically appoints three new fellows per academic year for three-year terms by means of an annual competition involving an international pool of candidates. At MIT, the Fellows enjoy unrestricted choice of research direction for the duration of their appointment; active faculty mentoring through weekly luncheons and monthly dinners that are 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 in discretionary funds; and health insurance coverage for fellows and their dependents.

The program completed its fourth competition in January 2003, continuing an annual 50 percent increase in the number of participating candidates. As candidates must be nominated by a faculty member or senior researcher within the global physics community, the annual increase in nominations demonstrates how quickly and successfully the Pappalardo Fellowship Program has become established within physics worldwide.

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Research Highlights

The Origin of Mass

Everyday work at the frontiers of modern physics usually involves complex concepts and extreme conditions. We speak of quantum fields, entanglement, or supersymmetry, and analyze the ridiculously small or conceptualize the incomprehensibly large. Just as Willie Sutton famously explained that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is," so we do these things because "that's where the Unknown is." It is an amazing and delightful fact, however, that occasionally this sophisticated work gives answers to childlike questions about familiar things. Frank Wilczek's work on subnuclear forces, the world of quarks and gluons, casts brilliant new light on one such child-like question: What is the origin of mass?

This understanding of the origin of mass, as outlined in its essentials by Wilczek, is the most perfect realization we have of Pythagoras' inspiring vision that the world can be built up from concepts, algorithms, and numbers. Mass, a seemingly irreducible property of matter, and a byword for its resistance to change and sluggishness, turns out to reflect a harmonious interplay of symmetry, uncertainty, and energy. Using these concepts, and the algorithms they suggest, pure computation outputs the numerical values of the masses of particles we observe.

Still, our understanding of the origin of mass is by no means complete. We have achieved a beautiful and profound understanding of the origin of most of the mass of ordinary matter, but not of all of it. The value of the electron mass, in particular, remains deeply mysterious even in our most advanced speculations about unification and string theory. And ordinary matter, we have recently learned, supplies only a small fraction of mass in the Universe as a whole. More beautiful and profound revelations surely await discovery. We continue to search for concepts and theories that will allow us to understand the origin of mass in all its forms, by unveiling more of Nature's hidden symmetries.

(Adapted from "The Origin of Mass" by Frank Wilczek, Herman Feshbach professor of physics, physics@mit, Fall 2003)

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Einstein's Mirages

The first prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity to be verified experimentally was the deflection of light by a massive body—the Sun. In weak gravitational fields (and for such purposes the Sun's field is considered weak), light behaves as if there were an index of refraction proportional to the gravitational potential. The stronger the gravitational field, the larger the angular deflection of the light.

The Sun is not unique in this regard, and it was quickly appreciated that stars in our own galaxy (the Milky Way) and the combined mass of stars in other galaxies would also, on very rare occasions, produce observable deflections. Variations in the "gravitational" index of refraction would also distort images, stretching them in some directions and shrinking them in others. In the analogous case of terrestrial mirages, the deflections and distortions are due to thermal variations in the index of refraction of air.

Both mirages sometimes produce multiple distorted images of the same object. When they do, at least one of the images has the opposite handedness of the object being imaged—it is a mirror image, but distorted. At least one of the other images must have the correct handedness, but it will also be distorted. The French call such distorted images gravitational mirages.

Gravitational mirages provide a wealth of information about the gravitational potentials that produce them. Perhaps the most important outstanding question about galaxies is the amount and distribution of dark matter within them. A great many lines of evidence lead us to believe that only4% of the mass-energy content in the universe is in the form of ordinary matter: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Most ordinary matter is in the form of protons and neutrons, i.e. baryons. We call it baryonic matter. Roughly30%of the mass-energy content is in something we call dark matter, for lack of a better name or any physical understanding of what it might be.

(Adapted from "Einstein" by Paul L. Schechter, William A. M. Burden professor of astrophysics, physics@mit Fall 2003)

Marc Kastner
Department Head
Donner Professor of Science

More information on the Physics Department can be found online at


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