Peter Fisher named new head of Department of Physics

Dark matter detection scientist hopes to maintain culture of excellence within department

Last week, Professor Peter H. Fisher was named the new head of the Department of Physics. His five-year term will begin on Nov. 15. Fisher succeeds Edmund Bertschinger who left his position as department head in July to become the Institute Community and Equity Officer. Since then, Thomas J. Greytak has been serving as an interim department head. Fisher has been a faculty member at MIT since 1994. He currently teaches 8.033, a course on special and general relativity.

Fisher’s primary goal is to maintain the department’s commitment to excellence and maintain its current ranking one of the leading physics departments in the world.

“This department is really good because of the staff,” Fisher said. “The main reason why I accepted this position was to work with and provide leadership to such great staff members.”

Fisher strongly believes in maintaining comprehensive relationships with faculty and students. “I want to spend the first few weeks getting to know the staff and students,” said Fisher. “The first practical thing for me to do is to integrate myself.”

He plans to meet with representatives from the four student groups within the Physics Department: Undergraduate Women in Physics, Society of Physics Students, Physics Graduate Student Council, and Graduate Women in Physics, so that he can ensure they receive the support that they need in order to keep flourishing.

“I am sure Peter will maintain the high standards of excellence in teaching, for which the Department has become known,” said Marc A. Kastner, dean of the School of Science and Donner Professor of Science. “Like all tenured faculty in the Department of Physics, Peter Fisher has done outstanding research. In addition, I have seen many examples of his unusual devotion to undergraduates, both inside and outside the classroom.”

With the acquisition of this venerable position comes a notable drawback: “The bad part about this is that I don’t get to teach,” said Fisher. “When you’re a professor, the course has to take priority, otherwise it is a disservice to students.” Fisher wants to make sure that the responsibilities of being department head have his full attention during his term.

Another of Fisher’s goals for his term as department head is to maintain participation with edX. Fisher notes that the Department of Physics is actively involved with edX, with the addition of 8.01x this year after the recent success of 8.02x. Fisher believes that edX is a unique opportunity for students around the world and a useful resource for students here at MIT.

“The physics department’s deep commitment to edX will continue,” said Fisher.

The physics department at MIT offers many unique opportunities for undergraduates that are distinct from the offerings of physics programs elsewhere. Fisher mentioned some of the rare opportunities that MIT undergraduates have, including classes such as String Theory for Undergraduates (8.251) with Barton Zwiebach, Alan Guth’s Particle Physics of the Early Universe (8.952), which discusses inflationary cosmology, and Relativity (8.033).

“Normally, physics students don’t see these topics until graduate school,” said Fisher. “I would love to see more courses like that: people who invented their field and can really teach an excellent course about it.”

Fisher also notes that Biophysics is an emerging topic in the field of Physics, and MIT will be continuing its initiative to further research on that front.

Before coming to MIT, Fisher earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of California at Berkeley, followed by a PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1988. From 1989 to 1994, he was a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. In addition, Fisher spent twelve years working at CERN on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that is now on the International Space Station. Fisher is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and head of the Particle and Nuclear Experimental Physics Division here at MIT. His research focuses on the detection of dark matter, which he plans to continue while serving as department head.