Physics program gains prestigious national ranking

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Klaus D. Sattler, (808) 956-8941
Professor, Physics and Astronomy
Pui Lam, (808) 956-7087
Professor and Department Chair, Physics and Astronomy
Posted: Oct 14, 2010

The latest National Research Council (NRC) ranking of graduate programs has placed the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa physics department among the top 12 in the United States, alongside stellar programs such as those at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, all several times larger than UH Mānoa's.


This result is a huge gain from the 81st place the UH Mānoa Physics Department occupied in the last comprehensive NRC graduate program survey completed in 1995. The 2010 NRC survey, based on data initially gathered around 2005, identifies program characteristics which can be quantifiably measured such as number of publications and citations. An overall ranking is determined by the relative weight assigned to each program characteristic.  The NRC presented two rankings.  In the S-ranking (direct survey based), faculty were asked to rank relative importance of the various program characteristics.  In the R-ranking (indirect regression based), a smaller group of randomly selected faculty were asked to rate programs from a sample of programs.  A regression method is then used to determine the relative weights.  The S-ranking is quoted in this article.


The UH Mānoa physics program achieved very high marks -- near the top of all U.S. institutions – for three of the most heavily-weighted standards:  the fraction of faculty with research grants, faculty productivity as measured in terms of scientific publications, and citations per publication, a measure of the wider scientific impact of a published result.


The emphasis put by this year's NRC rankings on the per-faculty statistics allowed Hawaiʻi's relatively small physics department -- 16 professors and 28 graduate students -- to shine through brightly in its areas of expertise, among them high energy particle physics, neutrino and cosmic ray physics, nanophysics, and free-electron lasers.  While UH Mānoa Physics may not have the wide range of research programs of larger institutions, the department has been recognized for excellence in a smaller set of research areas for some time.  For example, UH Mānoa Physics was ranked 39th in the world by the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) last year.


The Physics teaching programs, both graduate and undergraduate, benefit greatly from the active research activities in the department. Undergraduate students are encouraged to participate in research.


In high energy particle physics, UH Mānoa faculty Tom Browder and Fred Harris continue to play leading roles in international collaborations, the Belle experiment in Japan and the BES experiment in China, respectively.  The BES experiment studies particles composed of the charm quark (and its anti-quark), one of the six quarks that, along with leptons, form the basic blocks of ordinary matter. BES has the world largest samples of these charm-anticharm states, which are being analyzed at UH Mānoa. Data from the Belle experiments provided important confirmation of the Kobayashi-Maskawa framework for matter-antimatter asymmetry, which was recognized in the award of the 2008 Nobel Prize. This asymmetry partially explains the dominance of matter over antimatter in our universe. Emeritus professor Steve Olsen discovered a series of unexpected new particles before retiring from UH Mānoa. 


Complementing these experimental efforts is a strong theoretical particle physics group. Sandip Pakvasa is internationally known for work on matter-antimatter asymmetry and neutrino physics. Xerxes Tata is one of the leading developers of experimental strategies for finding supersymmetry at particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and in ‘dark matter’ searches. They, along with Jason Kumar, have wide-ranging interests in other areas including dark matter and cosmology.


In neutrino physics, John Learned has developed a world-wide reputation for playing pivotal roles in the Nobel-prize winning Super-Kamiokande experiment and the KamLAND experiment. These are underground research facilities in Japan where the presence of the near-vanishing neutrino masses has first been measured. This is arguably the most important particle physics result of the last two decades. Learned’s work resulted in several research papers that are among the most widely cited papers in all of physics, as well as several cover articles in Nature, the pinnacle journal in science.


Closely related to this are the ongoing efforts of the ANITA balloon experiment in Antarctica, the most sensitive ultra-high energy neutrino detector yet developed, and NASA's only neutrino experiment. ANITA was initiated and is led by UH Mānoa's Peter Gorham. ANITA's results have been honored with two different covers on the prestigious Physical Review Letters - the "gold-standard" journal in physics - in 2007, and now most recently Oct. 8, 2010.


Free-electron laser (FEL) research is an area where UH Mānoa can boast a unique asset -- John Madey, the world renowned inventor of the FEL.  He, along with Luis Elias, Eric Szarmes and Pui Lam, pursue investigations centered on the department's newly operational high-performance FEL facility, which occupies a large laboratory covering much of the department's ground floor.


In Nanophysics, Klaus Sattler is the editor of the just published seven-volume Handbook of Nanophysics, the largest and most comprehensive source of its kind at nearly 5,700 pages. Sattler is a pioneer in the study of carbon structures known as fullerenes, which have applications in a variety of fields including medicines and material sciences. Sattler heads a laboratory in the UH Mānoa physics department that includes a variety of ultra-high precision instruments for atomic-scale imaging and measurements.


Gary Varner, who recently won his third Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Detector Research Award, is the inventor of the ‘oscilloscope on a chip’, which plays a critical role in the ANITA, Belle and Belle-II experiments. He is the director of the department’s Instrumentation Development Lab where students, starting from the undergraduate level, are introduced to advanced electronic device fabrication.


Sven Vahsen, who has just joined the department this year as an assistant professor, is joining the Hawaiʻi Belle effort and exploring a new technology for Dark Matter detection.  He is off to a great start with a grant from the National Science Foundation, to investigate how this new technology can be used to detect fast neutrons and special nuclear materials. 

Finally, several research areas benefit from the efforts of research faculty, affiliated faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and other specialists. These people are essential for productive research, especially in areas that involve complex detectors and large amounts of data.

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