Campus welcomes seven new theorists to astronomy, physics

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

07 November 2001 | Berkeley’s astronomy and physics departments are welcoming an unprecedented number of new scholars — seven in all — to campus this fall.

Astronomy Chair Jonathan Arons and Physics Chair Chris McKee had no idea when they offered the faculty positions that all would accept. In fact, the new crop of scholars joining the College of Letters and Science has created the largest influx of theoretical physicists and astrophysicists in university history.

“It’s going to change the complexion of physics at Berkeley to have such a strong young group of theoreticians,” said McKee, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of both physics and astronomy.

New faculty
The new faculty include two theoretical cosmologists — astronomer Chung-Pei Ma from the University of Pennsylvania, who will arrive in January 2002, and physicist Martin White — who will continue their investigations of the origin and evolution of the universe. Joining them are Eugene Chiang, an astronomy assistant professor, who has been hired by the campus’s new Center for Integrative Planetary Science, and Eliot Quataert, a theoretical astrophysicist who studies the formation of planets, black holes and galaxies.

In addition, string theorists Petr Horava and Ori Ganor will join the physics department. Their studies focus on the ultimate structure of space and time. Assistant Professor of Physics Joel Moore, from Lucent Technologies, rounds out the complement of theoretical scientists, bringing his interest in explaining new states of matter to the campus.

The theoreticians, who fill the shoes of nearly half a dozen recently departed astronomers and physicists, will not only bolster Berkeley’s standing in those disciplines but help to balance the departments’ strengths in experimental physics and astronomy, according to McKee.

Arons, a professor of astronomy and physics and director of Berkeley’s Theoretical Astrophysics Center, was elated by the news that all seven candidates had accepted positions. The campus has faced stiff competition from universities as strong as Berkeley in experimental and theoretical astronomy, and especially foreboding competition from Princeton University and the California Institute of Technology.

“These are all first-rate people we are really proud to have,” Arons said. “We really pulled in some of the hottest young theorists out there.”

Invaluable additions
According to astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, the world’s foremost planet sleuth and director of Berkeley’s Center for Integrative Planetary Science, Chiang will be an invaluable addition to the astronomy department.

Chiang, who came from Caltech, has been involved in modeling how planets develop the highly eccentric orbits that Marcy and others have seen in many planetary systems outside Earth’s own solar system. Chiang thinks this may happen when one planet dives to a fiery end in the star, kicking a second planet out of its circular orbit into a looping one.

Two of the new faculty members are in the trendiest area of theory today, string theory. Horava, a native of the Czech Republic who arrived in August from Rutgers University’s Center for New High Energy Theory, is eager to share ideas with colleagues in the campus’s new Center for Theoretical Physics.

String theory envisions particles — protons and electrons, for example — as strings rather than points, moving in as many as 10 space-time dimensions. The theory promises to unify the two grand theories of the 20th century, quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Cosmology is another theoretical strength at Berkeley. Martin White, who joins Ma in that discipline, looks forward to the “fun and excitement of being around good new people,” not to mention the many campus and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory colleagues who work in related fields. White is particularly interested in understanding the role played by dark matter and the recently discovered dark energy, which together make up about 95 percent of the mass of the universe.


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