R. Dynes and `The UC’


A news snippit from back home: Robert Dynes, a low temperature physicist, is stepping down from the presidency of the University of California. Local news reports can be found here, here, here, and here.

Among other accomplishments, Dynes presided over the growth of the UC system’s relations with industry, worked on budget compromises with the Governator, and saw the birth of a new campus in Merced. But Dynes’ departure also follows an “executive compensation controversy” where his administration provided unapproved benefits to retain top-officials. He stated that he chose not to step down until the entire situation had been resolved, claiming that the UC is now a `national model of openess and disclosure.’

I guess this is the kind of `excitement’ one must expect from the state that most Europeans seem to know as the setting for the teen drama, `The OC.’ For the record, no self-respecting Californian over the age of 20 ever uses the phrase “the OC.” I’ve previously written about my current university for people in the US. I’d now like to do the converse, and introduce the University of California to those who are unfamiliar with it. Ladies and gentlemen, I present, the UC. (It’s a pun, get it? 🙂 )

The UC

Most Americans think of the UC system in terms of UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the 60s or UCLAs reign over NCAA basketball under John Wooden. But there’s much more to one of the flagships of public university systems than hippies and basketball. I’ll leave the UC’s history and general facts to you to peruse on your own. I’d like to focus on the UC from the point of view of a particle physicist. I should note that that I am selecting highlights based on my own outsider’s knowledge — the following is sure to contain gross omissions, for which I apologize.


As a physicist, I should start with UC Berkeley, which can arguably be called the birthplace of the “American school of theoretical physics” under Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a testament to its history when Steven Weinberg referred Berkeley as a model around which he wanted to build the University of Texas, Austin theoretical physics group:

Everyone seems acutely aware of the opportunity this university has of making the same move that Berkeley once made—of becoming an absolutely peerless university. S.Weinberg, Time Magazine 26 April 1982

Next to the campus is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, operated by the UC. The LBL physics division is seamlessly intertwined with the UC Berkeley physics and astronomy departments; creating a large collaborative research environment. Recently George Smoot of LBL won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with Mather on the CMB. Rest assured this is only the most recent of many Berkeley Physics Nobels (who are vying for prime parking). LBL is also the North American ATLAS hub.

The Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics has a nice (if incomplete) list of prominent theoretical particle physicists who have associated with the university.

Santa Barbara

If you head south from Berkeley, about 3/4 of the way to Los Angeles, you’ll find yourself in the lovely beachside city of Santa Barbara. The UCSB physics department has its own group of recent physics Nobel Laureates, the most recent being David Gross, who is also the director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.

The KITP is one of the staples of the West Coast theoretical physics community. It’s structured to a forum with themed programs running during the year in which researchers can come together to collaborate for periods of time. At any given time, you’ll find the KITP hosting big names in a range of theoretical physics disciplines. A great feature for those who are far away? The KITP maintains a great online catalog of talks from its conferences.

Also, for undergraduate studies, I’ve been told that the College of Creative Studies is quite a special place.

The most remarkable feature of the UCSB campus? Both the KITP and the physics department are situated on a fantastic ridge overlooking the beach. Graduate students in the physics department an smell the ocean breeze from their corridors. Researchers at the KITP can throw paper airplanes into the surf. And, if you’re mindful of sharks in the summer, it is a lovely surf indeed.

Davis and Santa Cruz

I have very little first-hand experience with either of these institutions, so I’ll be brief to prevent inaccuracies. I wanted to point out two groups of interest, however, at the UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz campuses:

One of our collaborators is especially fond of Santa Cruz for its proximity to Redwood forests.


Thus far I’ve mentioned groups in the city (Berkeley), overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge (LBNL), on the beach (UCSB, KITP), by the forest (UCSC), and in the middle of nowhere (UCD — sorry guys). This is still only a fraction of the UC system, which includes universities at another beach (UC San Diego) another city (UCLA, Riverside, Irvine), and another nowhere (UC Merced — no apology). Due to my own ignorance and unfamiliarity with these universities, I cannot say much other than that they also have very good physics programs. Another campus, UC San Francisco, is a medical university only.

It might be a bit surprizing that there’s more to the UC system that universities. In addition to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the UC system also operates the Los Alamos National Research Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Yes, it’s the same Los Alamos as the Manhattan Project. And no, it’s not in Calfornia but in New Mexico. For you astronomers, the UC operates Lick Observatory and is a managing partner of the Keck Observatory.

Anyway, that’s your whirlwind introduction to some of the physics at  one of the most successful publicly-funded university networks in the world. As I started by talking about Dynes’ resignation of his presidency of the UC system, and I thought I should close by noting that Dynes was one of three former Bell Labs physicists `running’ the UC, joined by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau and LBNL Director Steve Chu. A UC Berkeley physicist once remarked that this was because the size of experimental collaborations in physics have taught experimentalists to become excellent and efficient managers.


One Response to “R. Dynes and `The UC’”

  1. 1 Thomas Love

    I enjoyed your site (followed the link from Woit), I was disappointed that you shorted UC Santa Cruz, since I got my PhD there in mathematics. After a bachelor’s degree in physics, I switched to math because it was obvious that if I stayed in physics, I wouldn’t learn enough math to do the physics I wanted to do. UCSC has the be the most beautiful of the UC campuses and I have seen them all (except Merced)

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