It’s an equation worthy of Albert Einstein: Take a nationally renowned research university, add fresh intellectual energy to its physics and astronomy department, and get flooded with prestigious awards and millions of dollars in grants for conducting cutting-edge research for exploring everything from the atomic building blocks of matter to discovering new galaxies at the fringes of the universe.
Beginning in the fall of 2004 and continuing through 2010, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, part of the School of Arts and Sciences, lost 18 faculty members through retirements, personnel departures, and deaths—a substantial turnover for a 61-member faculty. “We set out to build on our existing strengths,” says department chair Ronald Ransome. “We calculated what they were, and we took it from there.”
The department has 16 new or recent hires, and 10 of them have won the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program award, given to promising young researchers; only Princeton and Cornell universities have as many recipients since 2005. Combined with other awards, the new faculty members have brought $15 million in research grants to Rutgers. In reinvigorating the physics and astronomy team, the university relied chiefly on advertisements in scholarly journals as well as on recommendations from colleagues at universities and laboratories. Its ace in the hole has been its reputation for research that emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration.
The new members’ expertise is spread across several areas, including condensed matter, high-energy physics, biophysics, and astronomy. Several of the recruits are researching condensed matter, an exotic realm devoted to the study of materials with complex molecular structures and properties. Condensed-matter experiments played a role in developing everything from cell phones to personal computers to superconductors, which have zero resistance to electricity at fantastically low temperatures. The Holy Grail is to create a superconductor that can operate at or near room temperature, thereby immensely improving memory storage and processing speeds for computers, as well as increasing efficiency for electrical power transmitters and nuclear fuels—particularly important in finding new energy sources. Condensed-matter theory overlaps with many fields, magnifying the potential impact of new discoveries. Whole new technologies are on the horizon, and Rutgers scholars and researchers are helping to lead the way.
One of the bright lights in the condensed-matter field is Kristjan Haule, who joined Rutgers in 2005 because of the quality of the faculty members of the physics theory group. “In our area of computational condensed-matter theory, the Rutgers group is probably the best in the world,” says Haule, who was recruited from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. A big draw, he says, was the university’s Beowulf Project computer system, which uses linked personal computers to create a low-cost supercomputer—perfect for scientific research in general and condensed-matter theory in particular. The Beowulf cluster at Rutgers links more than 1,500 processors for the computing power of five teraflops. (“Flop” is the acronym for floating-point operations per second; one teraflop equals a trillion floating-point operations per second.) That makes the Rutgers cluster one of the most powerful in the nation, capable of high-powered number crunching as well as easy networking and sharing of data. More than 50 research projects being undertaken by faculty members and postdoctorate students use the Rutgers Beowulf.
Another star in condensed-matter research is Girsh Blumberg, who was drawn to Rutgers three years ago because of the university’s emphasis on intellectual cross-fertilization, which invites scholars from every branch of the field to share results and research. “It’s a very strong department in my area,” says Blumberg, who uses spectroscopy to study the composition of different materials. “There are many people I can interact with. I was looking for a place like that—the same kind of experience I had during my early years at Bell Laboratories.”
The high-energy physics team uses the giant particle accelerator at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, which smashes atoms to allow the study of quarks, leptons, and the whole bewildering menagerie of subatomic particles. The close collaboration between the experimental and theoretical physicists makes Rutgers a leader in this area. The department is also expanding its biophysics team, which applies the techniques of physics to the study of living organisms and ecosystems.
Astronomy has become a strong suit for the department as well. “It has been a very exciting area because of the huge number of new telescopes that allow for observations far beyond anything that’s been possible up to now,” Ransome says. The university owns a share of one such new telescope, the Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT, and has access to the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in the Chilean desert. That was a big incentive for Andrew Baker, who joined the astronomy department four years ago. Baker uses powerful radio telescopes to observe the interstellar gas in nearby and distant galaxies and to understand how galaxies in general form and evolve. When ALMA produces its first scientific data in 2011, Baker anticipates a feast.
But if the tools of Big Science drew Baker to the university, he remains because of more human-scaled factors: the quality of the graduate and undergraduate students and, above all, the collegiality of the university’s physics department. “The sharing of ideas and information,” he says, “is the big reason for my happiness at work.”
— Steven Hart UCNB’92