Big Physics (Stanford and Berkeley), Part I.


I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, as it was the juxtaposition I used to title this blog (at least until my location shifts). Anything that involves pitting Stanford against Berkeley is nominally tagged with a “Big” prefix. Hence the annual football game is “Big Game,” the water polo game is “Big Splash,” and everything else is “big whoop.” (To be honest, I can’t remember any other notable Cal-Stanford rivalries–but Stanford undergrads tend to pay less attention than Cal undergrads about this.)

Anyway, I don’t think it’d be fair to pit Stanford and Berkeley’s physics departments against each other. (It’s also probably an inappropriate judgement to make public.) But the two eminent bay area universities do have remarkably comparable physics departments. Here are my initial observations.

National Laboratory:

SLAC : Stanford :: LBNL : Berkeley

Stanford has the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a DOE lab that is currently the largest lepton collider in the world (the LHC is a hadron collider). It’s science program has shifted, however, from being primarily a particle physics lab to a multifaceted facility geared towards high energy x-ray lasers, synchrotron radiation (useful in materials science and biology), and particle-astrophysics. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has always had a broad scientific program and a rich scientific history. LBL had seven Nobel laureates (physics/chemistry) in the 50s and 60s, as well as one in 1939 (E. Lawrence, for which the lab is named), and one each in the 80s and 90s. SLAC had three Nobel prizes in physics, all for the discovery of fundamental particles, one in 1976 and two in the 90s. There isn’t much to compare about each lab since they are relatively different facilities. However, it is notable that they are incredibly similar in their relationship to campus: the labs’ physics divisions are effectively extensions of the physics department on each campus, physically connected by a regular shuttle and personally connected by many joint professor appointments. It is my understanding (though I have no concrete facts on this) that this extension is particularly beneficial in funding for hiring professors and supporting post-docs.

Quintessential Graduate Physics Textbook Authors:

M. Peskin : Stanford (SLAC) :: J.D. Jackson : Berkeley

Michael Peskin’s An Introduction to Quantum Field Theory is the standard textbook for the subject. (It replaced the text by Bjorken and Drell, both of whom are also from SLAC.) A well worn copy of the text on one’s bookshelf is both a trophy and a badge of one’s theoretical inclination. Josh, a friend of mine who worked with Peskin for his honors thesis, has a copy that is stained with blood. Since I don’t know QFT as well as he does (my book is still a Sisyphian boulder rather than a trophy), mine only has lots of tabs and duct tape.

J.D. Jackson’s Classical Electromagnetism text is known by any American physics graduate student (as well as any undergraduate from Caltech). Its problems are revered by many as the first encounter with Bessel functions, Greens functions, and tensors in a standard graduate curriculum. Somewhat ironically, Berkeley is one of the few schools that offers only one semester of graduate electromagnetism. Stanford has a 2 quarter course. By comparison with Peskin’s text, Stanford has a 3 quarter QFT course while Berkeley has a five semester QFT course that includes special topics.

Nobel Laureates

Art Schawlow : Stanford :: Charles Townes : Berkeley

Schawlow and Townes (the former was the latter’s post-doc) won (separate) Nobel prizes for work on laser spectroscopy. Schawlow passed away in 1999, though Townes is still active as a professor emeritus at Berkeley.

Including SLAC, Stanford has 9 physics Nobel prizes to its name (and likes to mention four additional prizes as being Stanford faculty at some point in their careers). Berkeley has 7 physics Nobel prizes, though some of its 5 chemistry Nobel prizes are for research in atomic physics (the “particle physics” of the time).  Steve Chu, it should be noted, is counted on both of these lists. Chu was a professor at Stanford when he received his prize, but has since become the director of LBL.

Hill Dwellers

Cow : Stanford :: Goat : Berkeley

Stanford has a very friendly family of Cows that live on the SLAC-side of the “Dish” environmental restoration/conservation and recreation area. The folklore is that these cows are descendents of the original cows that lived on Leland Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm (where Stanford University got its nick name). In true  Berkeley earth-friendly fashion, UCB employs a herd of rented goats to cut the grass on the Berkeley hills to prevent a fire hazard.

3 Responses to “Big Physics (Stanford and Berkeley), Part I.”

  1. Damn those Berkeley goats. I used to live near LBNL as a graduate student and those goats used to wake me up all the time.

  2. 2 Helen

    Just a footnote but Art Schawlow and Charlie Townes were also brothers-in-law. Art married Charlie’s sister Aurelia. They had three kids.

  1. 1 A Stanford Physics Student in Berkeley » Blog Archive » Big Physics IV: Faculty Clubs

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