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Physics department in good shape, despite headlines

| 07 May 2003

A front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle last Friday may have left some readers with the impression that Berkeley’s physics department has fallen from the top ranks. Not so, wrote Chancellor Robert Berdahl and Dean of the Physical Sciences Mark Richards in a letter to the editor. The department “remains among the top five in the nation and is the premier department at any public university in the country. UC Berkeley can match its physics faculty against any physics department in the world, as our highly talented graduate and undergraduate physics students can attest.”

The news story stemmed from an outside review of the physics department commissioned by the university earlier this year. The campus routinely seeks independent scholarly reviews of its academic departments and uses those reviews to guide improvements. Six eminent physicists, including two Nobel laureates, were asked to provide a frank evaluation and recommendations.

“We’ve all been concerned about inadequate facilities in physics and the loss of some key faculty, and we wanted a very candid report on what an outside team would assess as the major issues we need to deal with,” Chancellor Berdahl said in an interview.The review found areas needing improvement — notably in space allocations, infrastructure improvements (especially computer support), and faculty retention in critical areas — that confirmed earlier assessments by the department itself.

“While the department takes the committee’s findings and recommendations seriously, none of the problems identified in the report are surprising,” Richards said. “We had already reached the same conclusions that the committee reached, and we are already in the process of addressing many of the problems cited.”

Physics chair Chris McKee agrees. “Most people in the department think it’s an excellent report, and provides the basis for moving ahead.”

“Physics is critically important to the Berkeley campus, both for its own sake and because it is the foundation of many other fields and essential for progress in most areas of science and engineering,” added Paul Gray, executive vice chancellor and provost. “The campus is committed to maintaining the excellence of its physics research and teaching.”

Two years ago, for example, planning began for a new “integrated physical sciences complex” where Campbell Hall now stands. The campus has requested more than $60 million in state funds that, combined with money from gifts, will allow demolition of Campbell and construction of a $100-million-plus, state-of-the-art research building for both the astronomy and the physics departments. The project is projected to start in 2006-07.

In addition, the new Stanley Hall replacement contains nanoscience laboratories that will accommodate some of the cutting-edge research now conducted in old LeConte Hall, which was built in 1923. Of the additional 40,000 square feet the outside review recommended for physics, more than 30,000 square feet are now on the campus drawing board.

A seismic retrofit of old LeConte Hall is slated to begin next month. New faculty are being recruited for emerging areas of research, including biophysics, experimental condensed matter physics, and experimental astrophysics.

Despite the reviewers’ characterization of physics at Berkeley as a department in “a state of genteel decline” from its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, its reputation remains strong. In the 2002 U.S. News & World Report rankings for physics Ph.D. programs, Berkeley tied for third place with Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. The 1993 National Research Council rankings of such programs placed Berkeley’s physics department in third place, tied with MIT. Only Harvard and Princeton ranked above it in quality of faculty.

The department’s Ph.D. program is among the most competitive in the United States, admitting only one in seven applicants, and it competes effectively for the nation’s top graduate students. The department admits about 40 new graduate students each year, and currently has 230 grad students.

The department’s 48 FTE faculty include 12 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and one National Medal of Science winner. Research funding ranks near the top among physics departments nationwide. A total of 211 undergraduates are majoring in physics, and last year the department awarded 75 B.A. degrees — more than any other university in the country. On average, about half of the department’s undergraduates go on to graduate school.

“While it is true we have work to do, we don’t see physics at Berkeley in decline,” Chancellor Berdahl and Richards wrote in their letter. “We see our physics department poised for great revitalization. Our reputation was made by particle physics in the mid-20th century. The field of physics is moving in new directions. Berkeley is already leading the way in many of those areas, including astrophysics and nanoscience, and will build on its strengths in others, including biophysics.”

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