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Best Physics Department - Top Faculty

  1. Feb 29, 2012 #1
    Since becoming a graduate student, I've started to become competitive about who's department is better than who's. As a recent example, at a recent lecture given at my school by Andrew Strominger (Harvard faculty), one of my school's professors, Leon Cooper (Nobel laureate) asked about a statement Prof. Strominger made about the applicability of conformal field theories to superconductivity. Prof. Strominger's reply was pretty weak (turned out his only reason for the claim was "I've talked to guys in superconductivity who would agree"), but the way in which he answered the question was very arrogant. He seemed adopt the defensive strategy of using Harvardy arrogance to dismiss the question. I couldn't believe someone would talk down to a Nobel Laureate 25 years their senior. But I guess that's what Harvard does to you.

    So my question is: what are the best physics departments and why? Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.?

    For me, the most important factor is big-deal faculty. I think MIT's lineup is most impressive to me: Alan Guth, Frank Wilczek, Max Tegmark...
    Last edited: Feb 29, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 29, 2012 #2
    Out of curiosity, do you consider yourself to be a top player material in the world of physics? Do you see yourself as someone who could win a nobel prize?
  4. Feb 29, 2012 #3
    The short answer is no. I'm less interested in the kinds of things they award nobel prizes for than in the more philosophical aspects of physics. John Stuart Bell didn't win a nobel prize, but I think he deserves a lot more respect than most of the guys who did. I also don't really want to study string theory so I won't be one of those Ed Witten types.
  5. Feb 29, 2012 #4


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    Are you honestly expecting to get a definitive answer to this question?
  6. Feb 29, 2012 #5
    What I mean is, he is talking about working with some of the smartest people in the world to get a phd, when you can still get one without having to work with the most famous physicist around. Obviously no one can predict this stuff. Those people probably care about string theory anyways, so it might not even be to your benefit to work under them.

    Edit: The only reason john bell didn't win a nobel prize was because they aren't given out posthumously.
    Last edited: Feb 29, 2012
  7. Feb 29, 2012 #6
    Easy. Stanford - Robert Laughlin. Next question.
  8. Feb 29, 2012 #7
    I'm perfectly happy with the phd program at Brown, I just still feel the competitive urge when smug people from the tippy-top schools are overtly arrogant. When a Harvard person falls back on the superiority of their school, it would make me happy to have a reply like "well MIT is better so clearly you're second rate too."

    I don't want a "definitive answer," I just want some opinions! Surely this is purely a matter of opinion, and there must be people who have some sort of opinion! And hopefully there are arguments for why each school has weaknesses (relative to some competing school).

    Anyway, JS Bell published his results in the 60's. There was more than enough time to award it to him. Plus, just because he was nominated in 1990 doesn't mean he was going to get it! (There are plenty of nominees every year who don't get it.)
  9. Mar 1, 2012 #8
    It may be a valid response, or not.

    Yes, and it's sometimes a good thing. Or not. One thing about Nobel laureates is that they are not omnipotent, and they have known to be wrong, or to have some very, very wacky ideas about something.

    Best in what?

    For me the most important factor is that they'll let me in. If someone lets me in their department then I'll work like heck to make that department shine. It's surprisingly not difficult to make a department a star in a field, and at the graduate level, you are starting to be at the point, where you make a bigger impact on the department than the department makes on you.
  10. Mar 1, 2012 #9
    One good thing about going to MIT is that you get to see Nobel prize winners up close, and some of them are really unpleasant people to be around, some aren't. But one thing that I thing power and status does to someone is that it magnifies their personality characteristics, so someone that is mildly annoying become totally impossible once they have status and power.

    So if the cost of getting Nobel is to become like so-and-so, then I'd prefer to have the nice guy award. There's also the fact that getting the Nobel involves a large degree of dumb luck.
  11. Mar 1, 2012 #10
    Harvard tends to breed arrogance, but at the same time, I've seen that some arrogance can be useful. What I have seen happen is that if someone from another school gets turned down for something, the attitude is "well I must suck." Whereas more often than not, someone that has gone to Harvard thinks to themselves "well, those people are a bunch of idiots." The net result is that the Harvard person doesn't give up until they finally do get what they want.

    The trouble is that depending on the topic, maybe they are right.

    Also there is a funny trick. I'm pretty sure that Harvard isn't that great of a school for auto repair or interior decorating, but if you point that out, then people will react that it's not that important, and this works because the people that decide what's important are Harvard types.

    If you can't beat them, join them. If you can't join them, copy them.

    The reason that Harvard is that important is that they are the "mother ship." If you look at US science today, you have a huge number of universities, but if you go back to the 1940's, there were just a handful, and most of the universities today were "seeded" from Harvard. So it's surprisingly easy to get linked up with the Harvard network (at least in astrophysics.)
  12. Mar 1, 2012 #11


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    Also, best "physics department" (or even best university) is more or less an irrelevant question once you reach the graduate level. What matters is how good the research groups are. Working in a department where someone has won a Nobel prize for work in say optics is of course nice, but won't be very relevant to you if you are working on a problem in condensed matter physics.

    There are plenty of examples of small universities which -on paper- have very good departments, but this is because there are only maybe 2 or 3 groups working there and they happen to be very good.

    There are also plenty of examples of universities with large departments, where none of the groups are considered to be world leading, but where the "average ability" is quite good.

    And there also examples of departments where a few of the groups are very good, and the rest are maybe just average. Most of the "famous" universities here in the UK (Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial etc..) fall into the latter category which is why they don't do as well as some of the smaller universities in various evaluations (e.g. the RAE).

    Finally, do keep in mind that most departments specialize in few fields. I have no doubt that Harvard is a good university, but that is completely irrelevant to me since they are not involved in ANY research whatsoever in my field.
  13. Mar 2, 2012 #12
    There is one advantage to going to a big name school for undergraduate which is that you feel a lot less pressure to be modest.

    If you go to a freshman physics class of Big State U, and you point to some random person, and ask "Do you consider yourself to be a top player material in the world of physics? Do you see yourself as someone who could win a nobel prize?" and someone says "Hell yes, I'm going to win the Nobel Prize someday" then people will tend to look at them funny.

    If you do that at MIT or Harvard, the culture is different, and if some random freshman announces that he or she wants to win the Nobel prize, then both the faculty and the other students will tend to react to that statement with "we'll have lunch in Stockholm, when that happens."
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