Why come to UCSB?

This is the season in which students are deciding where to go for graduate school in the US. Around the country, students have been admitted to PhD programs, passing through a remarkably selective filter. To give you an idea, we typically get something like 600-700 applicants for what we hope will be 20-30 incoming students in all fields of physics. It’s a tough competition, and those that make it are a talented bunch. After that, the shoe is on the other foot. These students invariably have multiple offers, and now *they* have to choose where to go. The deadline to respond to our offer is generally tax day, April 15 (and as far as I know this is pretty much true everywhere). So we’re getting close.

Normally physics departments invite these “prospective” students to a day-long visit of the campus, to meet professors and students, and learn more about the program. With COVID-19, we like many others canceled the visit, which would have been yesterday, and held instead a virtual visit. I spent 4.5 hours yesterday on Zoom with prospectives. It worked pretty well but I can’t help but wonder what got lost in the mix. For example, we normally hold a poster session with current students showing their work to the prospectives, there are casual events to discuss, etc. It all was pretty compressed and intensified by the last-minute change to virtual space.

So…I thought maybe it would be useful to give a few advertisements for UCSB physics, focusing on condensed matter because well that’s what I know best.

  • We’ve got a big and top-notch condensed matter theory effort. Apart from myself, there are five physics faculty working in quantum matter theory: Matthew Fisher, Chetan Nayak, Cenke Xu, Andreas Ludwig, and starting this fall Sagar Vijay. But that’s not all. Microsoft Quantum has several permanent scientists that advise students: Bela Bauer, Roman Lutchyn, Parsa Bonderson. There are a number of computational theorists in other departments: Chris van der Walle, Vojtech Vlcek, Glenn Fredrickson (Glenn does polymer physics, which is classical not quantum, but recently his group has discovered they can use their polymer algorithms to simulate quantum spins or bosons!). We also have a number of theorists in soft and living matter, which isn’t quantum but neverthess we share a lot of ideas in common: Boris Shraiman, Cristina Marchetti (Cristina and I go way back – we collaborated back in the 90s!), Mark Bowick. There’s also some convergence of interest with the string/gravity group, where chaos and scrambling, SYK models, etc. are being actively studied.
  • Don’t forget our postdocs! The KITP has a track record of hosting the best postdocs in the world, and it hasn’t changed. They are young, motivated, and brilliant, and they are eager to work with our students. Typically we have about a half dozen overall in condensed matter and quantum information.
  • More is different: Probably the most unique feature of UCSB is all the collaborative opportunities.
    • In theoretical physics at the center is the KITP: take a look here to see the 16 programs already scheduled for the next 1.5 years. Each one will bring 20-30 world-class scientists *every week* to the KITP to present their research, discuss ideas, and start new collaborations. It’s an amazing opportunity for our students to learn new things and gain valuable exposure.
    • There’s Microsoft Quantum, which is next door to the KITP and 5 minutes from the Physics department.
    • The new UCSB Quantum Foundry is an NSF sponsored center aimed to develop the quantum materials needed for quantum information science. I am part of “Thrust 1” whose goal is to study highly entangled matter such as spin liquids and topological superconductors. The Foundry offers collaborations, seminars, fellowships and more for students.
    • I am the co-director of the international program on Quantum Materials run through CIFAR. It’s a collaborative network of currently 15 scientists (theorists, experimentalists, and sample growers) from around the world interested in the deepest questions in the field. We meet a couple of times a year with students and postdocs and visitors to discuss and chart new research directions.
    • UCSB is a member of the Simons Collaboration on Ultra-Quantum Matter, which combines condensed matter, quantum information, atomic, and string theorists to study the nature of highly entangled and quantum critical matter. The Collaboration holds schools and meetings, and encourages exchanges of members.
    • We are an EPiQS Theory Center sponsored by the Moore Foundation. This supports some of those great postdocs and beyond.
  • That’s not all – I just got tired to typing. There are even more collaborations and multi-university efforts that students can become a part of.
  • It all connects to experiment: My personal favorite part of the field is connecting to real-world measurements in the lab. I have a lot of friends at UCSB who make those measurements. Stephen Wilson in materials grows new materials all the time, and we’ve been collaborating constantly on quantum magnets, spin liquids, Mott insulators, and superconductors. Susanne Stemmer is one of the top thin film (MBE) growers in the world, and has made many advances in correlated and topological materials. Andrea Young‘s lab is bursting with new discoveries in 2d materials such as twisted bilayer graphene, which provides a rich source of phenomena for theory to tackle. We keep hiring great young experimentalists in both the physics and materials departments, in both condensed matter and amo physics, and beyond this networks such as CIFAR and EPiQS, MURI grants, and more give students even more access to exciting experiments — and arguably I am pretty good at teaching them how to connect these with theory.
  • Our students are successful. The vast majority of the condensed matter theory group’s students stay in academia, and find permanent research positions.
and it’s not so bad to come to this every day!