----------------------------------------------------------------- Quarks, Undergraduates Fuel Falk's Enthusiasm for Physics ----------------------------------------------------------------- By Emil Venere Adam Falk arrived at Hopkins just as his research grants did. "The timing worked out very well," said the 29-year-old physicist, who came here this summer and promptly received a National Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation and an Outstanding Junior Investigator award from the U.S. Department of Energy. Those grants, issued only to exceptional young researchers, complement another grant from the National Science Foundation that he shares with physics professor Jonathan Bagger. The awards can be seen as recognition for his previous work as an assistant project scientist at the University of California in San Diego and as a research associate in the theory group at the prestigious Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Dr. Falk studies the properties of sub-atomic particles called quarks. He is especially interested in how quarks are held together to form other particles in an atom's nucleus. The revelations of particle physics research might seem abstract, or not relevant to the real world. But, in addition to the aspect of pure learning, such basic research has had a legacy of spinoffs benefiting society as a whole. Developing the technology needed to unlock the secrets of the subatomic particles that make up mass may ultimately produce important practical applications. Physics research has led to benefits ranging from life-saving medical diagnostics, to industrial breakthroughs and a major component of the information superhighway_the World Wide Web was created by scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, said Dr. Falk, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. You might say he's a physics booster. "It's a wonderful thing to study, and you should study it for its own sake," he said. Contrary to common perception, getting an undergraduate degree in physics is practical. It can lead to careers in engineering, or any technical field. But it can also be applied to a broad range of work that involves advanced mathematics, such as economics, for those future Wall Street wizards. Unfortunately, physics is often shunned by students, who could benefit by learning fundamentals before going on to more practical education. "People who have technical degrees, in my opinion, spend too much time getting their technical degrees and not enough time learning basics," said Dr. Falk, who brings impressive teaching credentials to Hopkins. He won six awards in five semesters as a teaching assistant at Harvard University, where he received a doctorate in 1991. "I really like the undergraduates," he said. "I like to excite them about physics and give them kind of a fresh outlook on it." When he isn't searching for elementary particles, he's teaching what he considers to be "elementary material" to freshmen and sophomores in his general physics class, proving that it is possible to pursue a competitive research career while also nurturing the next generation of scientists. "Even at a research institution like Hopkins, undergraduate education is extremely important," he said. Physics is one of the most difficult subjects on any campus. However, Hopkins students handle the challenge well, he said. They don't often sink to the superficial posturing seen at some universities, where students may revel in "physics macho," the tendency to show off during class and enroll in the most advanced courses for the sake of elite status. Hopkins students readily study together, pooling their brainpower to grasp the difficult material. But physics programs at some other institutions are not so congenial, with students often isolated from one another instead of teaming up. "It's an atmosphere of aggressive competition, which I don't think is healthy," said Dr. Falk. "I think that very often students spend more time showing each other how smart they are by pretending to understand things that they don't really understand. Students put themselves in the really advanced course, just to be there, but they don't really learn the material. And there is a whole culture of, Which course are you in? that doesn't seem to exist here at Hopkins at all. I really like the Johns Hopkins students. They are very hard working, and they are very unpretentious." The feeling is mutual, although his pupils may not agree with his idea of what constitutes "elementary material," based on how hard the second midterm was. Even so, it's comforting to have a teacher who cares enough to make physics fun and interesting, said Eric Osterweil, a 19-year-old sophomore from Newport Beach, Calif. "Last year we had Physics 1 and 2," he said. "It was mechanics and electricity and magnetism. By the second semester I wasn't really sure I was still on the right track with a physics major. But after just a week of Professor Falk's class I knew that I definitely wanted to be a physicist. He's a really good teacher. He makes a lot of really hard concepts clear." Dr. Falk spends much of his time mathematically probing the properties of quarks, hadrons (particles that contain quarks) and B mesons (a type of hadron). Physicists are trying to learn how quarks bind together to form protons and neutrons, in the nucleus. But first they have to understand more about the fundamental nature of quarks. Scientists will soon receive a boost in their efforts to probe mysteries about the behavior of subatomic particles. A new class of particle accelerators, called "B factories," is being built in Japan, and at Stanford University and Cornell University. They will produce large quantities of B mesons, particles that contain a variety of quarks called bottom quarks. By carefully studying how B mesons disintegrate, physicists can learn many insights about the behavior of subatomic particles. The B factories should be on line within 10 years, providing many experimental data for theoretical physicists like Dr. Falk. "I find it very exciting," he said.
Go to Gazette Homepage