Dear Berkeley Physics Community:
I very recently assumed the job of Physics Chair, taking over from Joel Moore, who so generously served as interim Chair from January to July of 2017, and Steve Boggs, who ably guided our department before Joel. We in Physics are very grateful for their selfless leadership. I am honored to follow them, and will do my best to live up to their high standards.
We are experiencing interesting times at Berkeley. Our optimistic new leaders, Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos, face challenges ranging from free speech and student safety, to budget deficits and insufficient student housing. Against this background, Physics continues to attract the finest students and most able young faculty. Two recent rankings define Berkeley’s distinctive role. The 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities placed Berkeley Physics second, behind only MIT. In the New York Times 2017 College Access Index, which measures the graduation rate and support provided to lower income students, UC campuses hold six of the top ten places.
State of the Department
The story of our Department can be summarized in numbers. In 2016-17 approximately 35 graduate and 110 undergraduates completed their degrees. In the current year 350 undergraduates, including 300 intended majors, and 270 graduate students reside in Physics: these numbers have grown by nearly a factor of three over the last twenty years. Our professional ranks include 63 active and 37 emeritus faculty members, including two active Nobel Laureates and 19 members of the National Academy of Sciences, and 43 dedicated staff members. The Department is also home to approximately 200 postdoctoral researchers doing extraordinary work in every subfield of physics. Berkeley Physics has advanced several initiatives during the past year. This spring, in support of a university-wide effort to strengthen the undergraduate experience, we launched the new Physics 5 laboratory series. Inspired by Physics 111, our capstone Advanced Laboratory course for juniors and seniors, Physics 5 brings freshman and sophomore physics majors the opportunity for hands-on design, construction, and operation of challenging experiments. This success came about from the combined efforts of a large team of staff and faculty, and from the generosity of many donors who helped support the project.
We created another new course, Physics 198, as part of a statewide effort to encourage continuing students to consider completing their education at a UC campus. This course is designed to help ensure the success of transfer students. Our College Access ranking reflects in part our state’s policy of encouraging students who have excelled in community colleges and elsewhere, to consider continuing their education in UC campus’ research-oriented environment. For some transfer students, this transition can prove challenging. To help with the adjustment, Physics 198 was created this past year. It allows us to identify any holes that might need to be addressed in a student’s academic preparation, to ensure students’ success at Berkeley, while also addressing the natural anxieties that may arise when a new student joins classmates who already “know the ropes.” We are very grateful to Claudia Trujillo, Amanda Dillon and Faculty Sponsor Jonathan Wurtele for designing and launching this important program.
Many of our students, on completing their degrees, decide to use their physics backgrounds in the science-driven high-tech industrial world. We launched the Berkeley Physics Partners (BP2) program to strengthen career development opportunities for and create new research and innovation connections between our researchers and industry partners. The BP2 partnership will help us train the young researchers needed to drive innovation in both basic science and industry. We are very grateful to Rachel Schafer for helping us create this much-needed program.
Future Needs and Opportunities
Physics is housed in the lovely historical core of our campus. Doing cutting-age science in buildings constructed in a different age can pose challenges. Recent modernization of our facilities, helped by state, foundation, and private support, includes the opening of Campbell Hall, creation of lab space focused on quantum-world challenges, repair of Old Le Conte masonry, and improvements in student and professional machine shops. A great deal of work remains, particularly in updating our instructional labs and shops, to accommodate our growing student population and research portfolio.
Our good fortune in attracting extraordinary young faculty continues, helped by generous donors who created “junior chairs” to aid our recruiting. New endowments and other private contributions are essential to keep us competitive with private universities over the next decade.
Berkeley Physics students and faculty looks forward each year to the public events we sponsor, including the Segre and Oppenheimer lectures and Cal Day. I hope you will join us for these events! Our next Oppenheimer lecture, scheduled for February 26, features University of Chicago astrophysicist Michael Turner, a very gifted speaker who will tell us about the fascinating cosmos in which we live. I hope you enjoy reading the 2017 Magazine for some of our Department’s new efforts in research and instruction. I encourage you to get in touch with us if you have any thoughts
—Wick Haxton, Physics Chair