Why does an electrical discharge, such as lightning, have a branching pattern? Why is not the pattern in a plasma ball spherically symmetric because of the spherically symmetric electric field inside?
Dear colleagues, alumni, and friends,
At the end of another academic year, it is an appropriate time to reflect on where we are as a department and where we want go. Certainly compared with where we were a few years ago, at the peak of the financial crunch and administrative turnover at the University of Illinois, we are in a much better place. At that time, the size of the Physics faculty had dropped precipitously and was approaching 50, well below our typical numbers in the mid-60s—the combined result of not hiring new faculty for several years and the unexpected departures of several key people. With student enrollments increasing and research productivity growing, the declining faculty size was putting enormous pressure on our ability to carry out our core missions in teaching, research, and service.
The last three years have been increasingly brighter. By the end of 2013, we expect to have hired a dozen faculty members over the last three years—half of those just this year—all excellent scientists in areas of strategic interest to the department. This year alone, we interviewed more than 20 faculty candidates from a combined pool in all areas of more than 250 candidates. That's a lot of applications and a lot of dinners, but it was worth the effort, because nothing energizes a program more than bringing in talented young people who take us in new and exciting directions. Even with these hires, we remain short of our target of 60 faculty members, so we expect to conduct even more searches next year.
There has been a corresponding increase in staff size in the department over the last few years, filling critical needs in introductory course administration, communications, advancement, and technical support for research. Our staff plays an essential role in enabling the department to do great physics and develop great physicists, and we are grateful for their extraordinary talents and commitment.
The growth in student enrollment and faculty size has triggered a need for more and better space for instruction and research, and we are making plans to address that. We are about to begin a major classroom renovation supported by University funds: this project will expand the classrooms in which we teach courses for our physics majors, upgrade discussion and lab rooms for our introductory courses, and create a new active-learning classroom in the space formerly occupied by scientific journals (which are now available online). It will also bring us brighter hallways, new restrooms, fire suppression sprinklers, and a faculty-staff lounge and kitchen from which to stage departmental events. The proposed project, like the recent construction of the Physics Interaction Room in the old Physics library space and the recent remodeling of the main department office, continues our investment in infrastructure to improve both the utility and attractiveness of our space.
We have even more ambitious plans. Two feasibility studies are underway for projects that will expand the size and capabilities of the Department of Physics. One is a design for an Advanced Experimental Research Building that would provide high-bay, low-vibration, electromagnetically shielded space for sensitive experiments in condensed matter physics—it would be located behind the Materials Research Laboratory on the site of the former nuclear reactor, which was decommissioned and razed. The other is an addition to the Loomis Laboratory of Physics on the west side, building over the lecture halls. This project would create new lecture halls, space for departmental and faculty offices, a complex for graduate students, an open atrium for events, and a new gateway for the Department of Physics that faces the core of campus. It is not clear when or if these projects will be realized—it will take a creative effort to identify the necessary resources and an equally creative plan for covering our course loads during the construction phase—but it certainly will never happen unless we make a plan and do our best to convince the University, the State, and our friends of the transformative impact that these projects would have on advancing physics research and teaching at Illinois.
With all the attention to the future of the department through hiring and infrastructure, one longstanding and distinguishing feature of our department remains constant: the commitment and excellence of our faculty, students, and alumni and their record of achievement and recognition. This newsletter highlights just a few of the many accomplishments of those who are or have been a part of Physics Illinois.
The road ahead will not be easy. The State of Illinois continues to have serious financial issues that have translated to decreasing support for higher education and imminent pension changes that could affect the career plans of our faculty and staff. Similar pressures nationwide are resulting in a squeeze on federal funding after many consecutive years of increases in research expenditures. Our faculty has responded by seeking new grant opportunities to support their research programs and by exploring innovative interdisciplinary collaborations to address complex scientific problems and to solve societal problems in health, energy, and the environment.
To our alumni, changes in the funding of public universities nationwide are also driving a targeted expansion of our advancement activities. We want to maintain contact with as many of you as possible and to keep you apprised of what is happening in Urbana—this newsletter is one way to do that. You are important to us: you are our legacy, you serve as role models for our students by demonstrating what you can do with a physics degree, and you are a steady and greatly appreciated source of support for the Department of Physics through your gifts and your role as ambassadors for our program. I encourage you to keep us informed of what is going on in your world and to visit us at any time.
Dale J. Van Harlingen, Head and Professor
Department of Physics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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