MIT Reports to the President 1997-98


The mission of the Physics Department is to gain a fundamental quantitative understanding of nature, and to teach the analytic approach required for that understanding both to students pursuing careers in physics and to those entering other fields. The Department is one of the best in the world, with strengths in an extraordinarily broad range of research. A few highlights of very recent research advances are given below. In the past year the Department has started the process of renewal, as the large number of faculty hired in the Sputnik era has begun to retire. Five assistant professors have been hired during this academic year, and four more will join the faculty in the next year, two of these nine are women. To better fulfill the educational component of our mission, we have completely reorganized the administration of teaching and student activities.

Physics faculty members continue to receive recognition by the outside community. We are especially proud of our four Nobel Laureates. Some of the recent major awards are the following: Professor Roman Jackiw was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Professor Eric Ippen won the Arthur Schawlow Prize of the American Physical Society. Professor Wolfgang Ketterle received the Gustav-Hertz Prize of the German Physical Society and a Discover Magazine Award for Technological Innovation in recognition of his atom laser. Professor Toyoichi Tanaka is the 1997 recipient of the Toray Science and Technology Prize. Professor Claude Canizares received the Goddard Medal of the American Astronomical Society. Professor Robert Jaffe's contributions to physics education were recognized by two awards: he was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow and received the Department's 1997 Buechner Prize for excellence in teaching. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awards have been given to three of the junior faculty who joined the Department during the past academic year: Professors Victoria Kaspi, Krishna Rajagopal, and Kevin McFarland. Professor Washington Taylor, who has accepted an Assistant Professorship for next year, has also won a Sloan. Rajagopal has been awarded the Class of 1958 Career Development Professorship.

Members of the Department provide leadership both at MIT and in the Federal Government. Professor Robert Birgeneau serves as Dean of Science, and Professor J. David Litster is Vice President and Dean for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. This year Professor Ernest J. Moniz was confirmed as Undersecretary of the Department of Energy.

Boleslaw Wyslouch was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure, and Raymond Ashoori and Leslie Rosenberg were promoted to Associate Professor without tenure.


In past years only two faculty members, an undergraduate officer and a graduate office, have supervised all the educational activities of the Department. In an effort to better serve our students, we have reorganized our educational administration under the supervision of Professor Thomas Greytak, Associate Head for Education. Tasks have been assigned to 11 faculty members, who are also members of the Physics Education Committee.

The size of the Department has decreased from a high of over 100 in the late 1960s to 81 this year and 79 two years from now. This reduction in teaching faculty has required significant changes. First, teaching responsibilities of each faculty member will increase somewhat. Second, graduate students will teach more freshman recitation sections. Many of the graduate students are enthusiastic about this opportunity to gain classroom teaching experience. In the fall of 1998, the Department will initiate a training program for graduate students to prepare them for this important responsibility. The new 8.01 format, which has been tried for two years, requires many more teachers than the conventional format. Since the students have not been enthusiastic about the new format, the previous one will be restored next year.

To encourage students to minor in Physics, the education committee, with the consent of the entire department, has liberalized the requirements for a minor. Whereas the previous curriculum was very specific, students will now be allowed to fulfill the physics requirements with any courses for which they have the prerequisites.

MIT's Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES) and Professor Walter Lewin have received a $735,000 gift from an anonymous donor to create a video tutoring web site for students taking 8.01. The gift requires matching funds of about $250,000, thereby making nearly $1,000,000 available for this two year project in which Professor Lewin will create a video archive of answers to frequently asked questions. The web-based learning environment will simulate a private question and answer session that a student might have with Professor Lewin during his office hours. At each step in the process, the student may select from a menu of currently available answered questions or submit a free-form question. Once the 8.01 web-based system is completed and tested on the MIT campus, CAES plans to offer it to other learners as well (possibly with a tuition fee), including high school physics students and physics students at other universities. The system is not meant to replace traditional physics teaching and learning, but rather to supplement them. In a related initiative, Professor John Belcher is developing web-based animation, simulation, and visualization to enhance the teaching of 8.02. The latter effort is made possible by a gift from James A. Earl and The Helena Foundation.

Our undergraduate majors are among the best in the United States. As an example, Anna Lopatnikova won the Apker Award of the American Physical Society for research done under the supervision of Professor Nihat Berker. This is the second student of Berker's to win the Apker.


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.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment had a very successful first flight on the Space Shuttle Discovery in June 1998. AMS is an experiment designed to look for cosmic anti-matter and evidence for dark matter by operating a large magnetic spectrometer above the Earth's atmosphere. The international AMS collaboration is composed primarily of particle physicists and is led by Samuel C.C. Ting, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Physics at MIT. The centerpiece of the AMS experiment is a large permanent magnet that takes advantage of significant recent improvements in permanent magnet technology. The recent 10-day mission on Discovery was designed to shake down important aspects of this challenging project and to take initial data. The mission accomplished all of its objectives, despite the fact that failure of a primary communications channel meant that not all of the data could be transferred to the ground during the mission. The detector operated well in all respects. The AMS experiment is scheduled for a 3-year data-taking period on the International Space Station starting in 2002.

Professor Edward H. Farhi and his collaborators have shown how certain computationally interesting problems can be cast in terms of decision trees that can then be searched by quantum evolution. In one example, they showed that the quantum search method significantly outperforms the associated classical search method, although the specific example is not of serious computational interest. On the other hand, they have shown that a quantum computer cannot outperform a classical computer in determining the parity of a function. This may be the most important result to date in defining the limitations of quantum computation.

When two heavy nuclei, such as lead or gold, collide at high energy, a region of space is filled with nuclear matter at extremely high temperatures and densities. By some estimates, the temperature at the center of the resulting fireball can reach 1012 degrees Kelvin. At these high temperatures nuclear matter is expected to undergo a phase transition to a new state, known as the quark-gluon plasma. This is a phase in which ordinary sub-atomic particles, like protons and neutrons, do not exist and quarks are no longer confined inside protons and neutrons as they are at lower temperatures. Furthermore, the temperature is so high that the vacuum itself is expected to undergo a phase transition. It is thought that the entire universe was in this state at about a millionth of a second after the big bang.

A group led by Professors Wit Busza and Boleslaw Wyslouch are building a new detector called Phobos to observe these phase transitions in heavy ion collisions at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) being built at Brookhaven National Laboratory. While preparing for the first experiments at RHIC, a group led by Wyslouch has recently completed data collection and analysis of an experiment at CERN, studying similar physics at lower energies. One of the most exciting predicted phenomena is the formation of an excited state of the vacuum, called the Disoriented Chiral Condensate (DCC). Modern particle physics has shown that the vacuum is not really empty. Instead, it is filled with a uniform background of quarks and antiquarks, but with a specific composition of different kinds of quarks and antiquarks. If one heats the vacuum to extremely high temperature, the mixture of quarks and anti-quarks evaporates, freeing Nature to make a different choice as the vacuum cools down again. In rapid cooling one may produce a small region filled with a "disoriented" vacuum, with the wrong composition of quarks and antiquarks. The search at CERN showed that higher energy collisions are required to observe the DCC, and it is hoped that Phobos will reveal it.

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

Marc Kastner

MIT Reports to the President 1997-98