A Spotlight On UCSB’s Flourishing Physics Department

Illustration by Alyssa Long

Nicole Luu
Contributing Writer

The physics department at UCSB has grown into one of the largest undergraduate physics departments in the U.S., due in large part to its amazing faculty. UCSB was not always considered an outstanding research facility, so The Bottom Line interviewed three faculty members to understand the transformation that has taken place since the school joined the University of California system in 1944. 

Based in Broida Hall and now boasting three Nobel Prize winners, the physics department at UCSB was founded only 30 years ago. It has become home to a variety of scientists, including both theoretical and experimental physicists. According to our three interviewees, the department has developed more freely without a lengthy past to hinder its growth. Additionally, persistent leadership in other departments has helped support and encourage the expansion of the physics department. 

The man in charge of it all, physics department chair Claudio Campagnari, came to UCSB in 1994 so he could collaborate with other great faculty and have access to resources that would further his work. Following past experimentation on the development of string theory and condensed matter, Campagnari is currently involved in developing a large particle collider. This advanced tool would allow physicists to identify new particles. He also supervises the building of new detectors since they cannot be purchased. Through his research, Campagnari hopes to break through boundaries by transforming the way physics is approached.

As department chair, Campagnari and his board of curriculum have begun to reevaluate the teaching mission within the physics major at UCSB. Because there are so many new students drawn to physics, it has become more challenging to teach this growing number of scientists. Tengiz Bibilashvili, one of the professors helping the department revise the physics curriculum, came to UCSB anticipating this challenge. 

By updating lab courses and offering a larger variety of diverse classes, professors will be able to provide more opportunities and research projects for both graduates and undergraduates. These changes will not only improve the quality of learning here at UCSB, it will also encourage more students to pursue an education in physics. Once these changes are finalized, they will affect incoming students but will not alter the curriculum or graduation requirements for current physics students. This update aligns with UCSB’s physics department’s continual presence on the cutting edge of scientific discovery.

Much of this groundbreaking research is based out of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP). Established in 1979, the KITP is now a world-renowned research facility where physicists and scientists tackle challenging universal theories — generating new fields like particle astrophysics, quantum computing, and string-theory. Lars Bildstein, the current director of the KITP, focuses on theoretical astrophysics, where he analyzes changes in the sky. Currently, he is working on creating a movie of the sky through repeated photography in order to examine patterns in space and the explosions that occur every second. 

Bilstein strives to build bigger telescopes that would enable scientists to view multiple galaxies at once as well as stronger computational devices to produce more accurate calculations. He also contributes to the work on MESA, an academic development program aimed at engaging disadvantaged students in STEM. This program not only helps students locally, but also internationally. 

The physics department at UCSB has grown and changed substantially since its founding and will continue to improve. The revised curriculum will open up new opportunities for all students, while revolutionary research will transform science around the world. Between UCSB’s attractive campus and world-renowned reputation, more faculty and students will want to contribute to our growing programs in the future.