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Physics, astronomy departments welcome seven new theorists
09 November 2001

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

When the astronomy and physics departments at the University of California, Berkeley, offered faculty positions to seven theoreticians this year, they had no idea that all would accept. The result was 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 physics chair Chris McKee, himself a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of both physics and astronomy.

One of the more senior of the newly hired faculty members, associate professor of astronomy Chung-Pei Ma, was amazed. "I have rarely heard about any place with a 100 percent success rate," she said from her office at the University of Pennsylvania. "That is just incredible success."

The new hires include Ma, who will arrive on campus in January, and professor of physics Martin White, both of them theoretical cosmologists who delve into the origin and evolution of the universe. Astronomy assistant professors Eugene Chiang, hired into the new Center for Integrative Planetary Science (CIPS), and Eliot Quataert are theoretical astrophysicists who study the formation of planets, black holes and galaxies.

Associate professors of physics Petr Horava and Ori Ganor are string theorists concerned with the ultimate structure of space and time. And Joel Moore, assistant professor of physics, spins theories to explain new states of matter.

Ganor and Moore also will arrive in January from Princeton and Lucent Technologies, respectively, but the other four are already settled and engaged in research and teaching.

The hiring of so many theoreticians is unprecedented, McKee said, and came about after nearly half a dozen theorists in physics and astronomy departed. In order to balance UC Berkeley's strengths in experimental physics and astronomy, both departments advertised new positions, and surprisingly, everyone offered a job accepted.

Jonathan Arons, professor and chair of astronomy and physics and director of the Theoretical Astrophysics Center, was elated by the acceptances in the face of stiff competition from universities equally strong in experimental and theoretical astronomy, especially Princeton and Caltech.

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

Chiang is impressive for the breadth of his work in trying to explain the formation of planets from swirling disks of gas and dust, said Geoffrey Marcy, the world's foremost planet sleuth, CIPS director and a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy.

"At the risk of overly flattering him, Eugene is clearly the world's most creative and ingenious young theorist in planetary science, and was considered by the most prestigious institutions in the world to be the up and coming young theorist, " he said. "We thought he would make an excellent hub, a focal point of the Center for Integrative Planetary Science."

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 our own. 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.

"It's great to be here in the same department with Geoff and Debra (Fischer), who have data fresh in hand relating to my very own work," Chiang said. "There is a lot of interest now in planetary science, but you won't find a group like this at many other places."

Two of the new hires are in the trendiest area of theory today, string theory. Horava, a native of the Czech Republic who arrived in August from the Center for New High Energy Theory at Rutgers University, is eager to share ideas with colleagues in UC Berkeley'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 spacetime dimensions. The theory promises to unify the two grand theories of the 20th century, quantum mechanics and general relativity, according to Horava, but the devil is in the details. How, for example, do the 10 dimensions of string theory become, at cool temperatures now extant in our universe, our four-dimensional spacetime world?

"String theory is essentially a unique candidate for a quantum theory of gravity unifying all interactions, and the physics community has started realizing this, generating a lot more interaction with cosmologists, astrophysicists and phenomenologists in particle physics. At some point, all these will turn out to be the testing ground for string theory," he said. "I think Berkeley is an extremely good place to build these interactions."

The physics department's strong commitment to string theory was the major draw for Horava, but he also was enticed by efforts to boost other theoretical areas such as cosmology, evidenced by the recruitment of Ma and Martin White.

Newly arrived from Harvard, White looks forward to the "fun and excitement of being around good new people," not to mention many campus and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory colleagues who work in areas close to his own. His research involves supercomputer simulations of the evolution of the universe's basic structure based on observed ripples in the cosmic microwave background. One of his primary interests today is the role played by the mysterious dark matter and the recently discovered dark energy, which together make up 95 percent of the mass of the universe.

His return to UC Berkeley -10 years ago he was a postdoctoral fellow at the campus's Center for Particle Astrophysics - provides an opportunity "to build up theoretical cosmology here," he said.

Whatever their motivation for coming, much of the credit for netting seven new theorists goes to the faculty members who identified and pursued the best and brightest.

"The astronomy department and in particular, Jon Arons, the chair, did a remarkable job at recruiting," said Ma, whose main tools are paper, pencil and computer as she seeks to understand how the distribution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies came about as the universe evolved. "He was relentless."

And in the end, research interests weren't all that mattered. Ma, who has had training as a concert violinist, also tried out with a quartet in which Arons plays cello.

"I was convinced that the sole reason he wanted me was because I play the violin," she laughed.