Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 9, 1995

Quarks, Undergraduates Fuel Falk's Enthusiasm for Physics

By Emil Venere

     Adam Falk arrived at Hopkins just as his research grants
     "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,
     "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.

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