Physics Program’s Star Dims at Berkeley

Times Staff Writer

Here he was, a top physics researcher in a basement lab, where flooding, power failures and minute building vibrations were damaging his long-term experiments.

UC Berkeley’s “facilities were inadequate, and they were getting worse,” said J.C. Seamus Davis, a 42-year-old specialist in low-temperature physics.

Then Cornell came calling, offering him new quarters and equipment worth up to $4 million. So last year, Davis left Berkeley, where he had taught and completed all of his graduate studies -- the place he had considered “one of the best physics institutions in the world.”

Once the envy of academia, UC Berkeley’s physics department is suffering from what an outside review panel recently called “genteel decline.” Though still a powerhouse, the department over the last four years has lost six of about 50 tenured professors -- all rising or established stars. They have headed to mostly top-notch private universities, including Harvard, Cornell and Caltech.


“We’re bringing them in at the beginning of their careers, but then five years later they’re disappearing,” said Christopher F. McKee, Berkeley’s physics chairman.

It’s a subtle but important shift for a school that has been a leader in physics research for more than half a century. Seven of its professors won Nobel prizes from the 1930s to the 1960s. It was home to Ernest O. Lawrence, known as the “Atom Smasher,” who invented the cyclotron; Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segre, the discoverers of the antiproton; and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to develop the first atomic bomb.

The department’s problems are emblematic of the difficulties faced by leading public universities that compete against private institutions for star professors. Drawing on plump endowments, private schools often can woo faculty with higher salaries, more generous benefits or better research facilities.

Higher-education experts fear that the disparity will only worsen as California and other states struggle with financial crises.


The longer this wealth gap persists, “the more public universities are going to lose,” said Roger L. Geiger, a Penn State University professor who specializes in the history of higher education and issues affecting research universities.

A sustained decline in physics at UC Berkeley could have marked repercussions. It’s not just that students might miss out on studying with luminaries or that they could opt to go elsewhere. In a broader sense, the university and state could feel the loss.

Physics underlies most scientific inquiry and technological progress. It has applications in everything from electronics and biomedicine to national defense and space exploration.

At Berkeley, considered one of the finest public universities in the nation, faculty long have attracted offers from Ivy League schools. But recent developments in the physics department dramatize the growing competitive pressures.


In March, a committee of outsiders hired by the university warned that the exodus of young professors, “a crumbling physical plant” and other problems had dimmed the department’s luster.

The department is still among the nation’s most highly ranked; its graduate program was in a four-way tie for No. 3 in last year’s ratings by U.S. News & World Report. But the “decline in its fortunes will continue unless immediate and significant actions are taken,” wrote the reviewers, a high-powered team including two Nobel laureates.

That hard-hitting assessment prompted UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl to pledge $12 million to $14 million to renovate the program’s facilities. That project has not begun, but the money has been set aside. He said the university expects to build new labs in coming years, although that hinges on passage of a bond proposal and fund-raising.

Berdahl views the department’s problems as isolated -- and fixable. “I don’t see any general slippage at all,” the chancellor said, referring to Berkeley’s overall standing and reputation.


But the physics review underscored concerns among faculty members.

“We are becoming increasingly outgunned in terms of what we can offer faculty, especially in laboratory facilities,” said Mark Richards, who oversees the physics department as Berkeley’s dean of physical sciences.

Deals are made or broken on the basis of lab facilities, which can be costly to equip and renovate, and difficult to squeeze into an already cramped campus.

“It’s very hard for us to attract new faculty,” said Colin McCormick, a graduate student specializing in optics. “New faculty want to go places where they can do their research, and where they don’t have to worry about dust, electrical power supplies, acoustic noise or space limitations.”


McCormick has air ducts in his top-floor lab that draw in dust and dirt, a major nuisance for a scientist working with sensitive lenses and mirrors.

To protect his equipment, he taped plastic over a ceiling vent. “It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the only thing we can do right now to keep this gunk from accumulating on our table,” he said.

McCormick said that even with the plastic cover, he is forced to spend extra time cleaning and readjusting his equipment. He still enjoys studying at Berkeley, but he worries about the department’s future.

Students and faculty members recalled that the distinguished professor emeritus Eugene Commins conducted experiments until his retirement two years ago in a basement lab in the middle of the night. The reason: High-precision experiments couldn’t be done after the building’s elevator was activated or the nearby BART trains started running. Both interfered with the magnetic field, distorting his measurements -- a complaint echoed by Davis, who worked in the same building.


The newest of Berkeley’s physics buildings is nearly four decades old. The university recently has invested heavily in life sciences facilities and programs -- including cell biology and genetics -- which have emerged as dynamic areas of research. In comparison, physics spending has lagged.

Compared to conditions in the labs, Berkeley administrators and professors said, the physics department’s salaries are a minor issue. Top faculty members earn $125,000 or more for a nine-month school year. Though the richest private schools sometimes pay more, McKee said his department often can match competing offers.

The physics department’s woes evolved over many years. Faculty members trace the problems to the 1980s, when three rising physicists the department had sought turned down Berkeley in favor of Stanford, then went on to win Nobel Prizes in the 1990s. The last Berkeley physicist to win a Nobel was Luis Alvarez, in 1968.

Douglas D. Osheroff, one of those physicists who chose Stanford, said he based his decision largely on personal -- not academic -- considerations. But Osheroff, now chairman of Stanford’s physics department, said Berkeley’s department has declined since then as many of its top faculty have retired or relocated.


“I still think it’s a good department, but it’s certainly not where it used to be,” he said.

Experts on higher education say there is no concerted strategy among elite private schools to prey on Berkeley. In fact, they mostly steal star professors from one another. But because Berkeley is so large and prestigious, it always has some professors that any school would be glad to get.

Ultimately, Berkeley administrators, professors and students say, the departure of stars from the physics department could prompt top graduate students to go elsewhere. That could lead more faculty members to depart in search of the best students. Grad students study rankings, and any slip catches their eye.

“If Berkeley had been a few notches down ... I probably would have gone to Caltech,” said Kevin Moore, a 25-year-old graduate student in atomic physics who two years ago chose Berkeley over Caltech.


There are other signs of the department’s fading allure. The number of National Science Foundation fellowship winners in physics who named UC Berkeley as their first-choice institution is 14 this year, down from 30 in 1998. And, over the same period, the percentage of accepted physics graduate students who have indicated they will enroll at UC Berkeley is 33.9%, down from 39.5% five years ago.

Still, many faculty members and grad students in physics say the department remains competitive and is attractive to scholars who believe in the mission of the public university.

“Berkeley is a place that takes some of the best students in California, but still takes a broad range of students with lots of different social and economic backgrounds,” said Dan Stamper-Kurn, a 32-year-old assistant professor who earned his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Other educators fear that the problems of Berkeley’s physics department presage troubles at other esteemed public universities. Indeed, other UC schools recently have lost some top scientists themselves.


UC Davis is losing two: Mathematician William Thurston is leaving this fall for Cornell, and Dennis Hedgecock, a geneticist, will decamp for USC.

“We haven’t seen a mass exodus,” said Barbara A. Horwitz, UC Davis’ vice provost for academic personnel. But if California’s budget problems worsen, “I suspect we’ll lose more people.”

UCLA this year lost James R. Heath, a chemist, to Caltech, and Steven Kivelson, a top theoretical physicist, is taking a leave to do research at Stanford.

Roberto D. Peccei, UCLA’s vice chancellor for research and a member of Berkeley’s physics review committee, fears that Kivelson won’t return, and laments that his university is losing two top scientists who are nearly certain to enter the ranks of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.


“Those are tough losses,” Peccei said, adding that, given current economic conditions, “there is inevitably going to be some drain out of the public sector.”

“Right now most state universities are very strapped for money because the states are,” Peccei said. “Most of the big private universities, even though their endowments have been nibbled ... are still in a very strong financial position, and they certainly have the wherewithal ... to make very interesting and good offers to some of the best scholars in public schools.”