Last week I was strutting up and down after UC Santa Barbara physics professor David Gross was one of three recipients for the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction." (Gross' former student Frank Wilczek, who shared the prize, was on faculty from 1981-89). Not that I had anything to do with his work, but somehow the value of my diploma has appreciated a little. That was already the fourth member of the UCSB faculty to be honored by Stockholm in the last six years. Walter Kohn won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his development of the density-functional theory," Alan Heeger won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the discovery and development of conductive polymers" and Herbert Kroemer, who I worked with at USCB in the early 1980's, won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics "for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed and opto-electronics." Then something really embarrassing happened on Monday. Finn Kydland was named to receive the 2004 Nobel Prize in Economics along with long-time collaborator Edward Prescott (who was a visiting professor at UCSB last year) "for their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics: the time consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business cycles." A lot of people are scratching their heads about this. It was the second time in four years that UCSB bagged two unrelated prizes in the same year. In fact the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page head-scratching story on Sunday--even before the economics prize--marveling at the transformation from party school to powerhouse. Neither of LA's two most famous schools have been racking up those kind of points lately It's no huge surprise in physics. The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, co-founded by Kohn, has become a Mecca for resident and visiting thinkers, including Stephen Hawking. (A former institute director Robert Schrieffer who was at UCSB during the 80s, was a 1972 co-recipient in physics for his work on superconductivity.)
These days, with a sweeping Pacific view out the windows of his office at UC Santa Barbara, Gross offers a different outlook. The California institution is "a university on the make," he said. "Just because you live in a beautiful place doesn't mean you can't do good work."
"Rollicking UC Santa Barbara Is Also a Party to Scholarship" makes two key points. First, that the campus is starting to lure the big intellectual guns. Second, that a hyperactive social scene is a detriment to serious scholarship. I disagree with both statements. It's worth noting that many of the prize-winning faculty have been at UCSB for decades. Gross was lured to campus in 1997 and Kydland only joined the full-time faculty a few months ago. But Kroemer (28 years) and Kohn (25) and Heeger (22) were already at UCSB when I was a student. What really bothers me, however, is the notion that students can't have fun and learn at the same time. Students drink and get into trouble at MIT and Oxford and every other campus on the planet. More to the point, that a healthy social environment somehow impedes intellectual activity rather than enhancing it. I know for a fact that I myself had no social skills whatsoever when I first moved into the dorm in Isla Vista. We are learning more and more about the social aspects of knowledge and learning and seeing the problems students and knowledge workers have when cultural and social barriers block open communication. If students are spending time around kegs or on the beach, they may be slacking off or they may be coming up with ideas worthy of future Nobel Prizes.