I wasn't really able to do the atomic physics research at a level that I was very happy with any more. I've never wanted to be one of those doddering old scientists who are 30 years behind the times.'
Carl Wieman, Nobel laureate physicist on leaving the University of Colorado at Boulder for UBC
The University of British Columbia has scored a major academic coup, snagging an American Nobel Prize winner with a promise to pump $12-million over the next five years toward the professor's passion to improve the teaching of science.
The departure of Nobel laureate Carl Wieman from the University of Colorado at Boulder was front-page news in the state and considered a significant blow to the U.S. university, where his superstar academic status helped attract millions in research funding over the years.
It's the professor's fascination with teaching that is bringing him to Canada. The University of Colorado offered Prof. Wieman just $5-million (U.S.) to fund his research into science education, about half of what UBC was putting up.
"This is quite significant, to have someone of his stature in the science community," UBC president Martha Piper said yesterday in an interview. "It's incredibly exciting, and it fits right in with our strategic vision for UBC."
Prof. Wieman, 54, was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 as part of a team that proved the existence of a form of matter predicted by Albert Einstein, called the Bose-Einstein condensate. He has also been recognized as an exceptional teacher, receiving the highest award from the National Science Foundation in the United States for distinguished scholars. He has been at the U.S. university for 22 years and reportedly attracts about $3.5 million (U.S.) a year in research grants to the university.
His appointment, effective January, 2007, will give UBC international bragging rights and enable the Vancouver university to promote itself as one of only two in Canada with a Nobel laureate on its faculty. (Nobel laureate John Polanyi is at the University of Toronto.)
Prof. Wieman was not available for an interview yesterday. However, he told the Denver Post that he is currently more interested in promoting education reform than continuing research at his atomic physics lab. "I wasn't really able to do the atomic physics research at a level that I was very happy with any more," he said. "I've never wanted to be one of those doddering old scientists who are 30 years behind the times."
UBC Provost Lorne Whitehead said the university did not have to compete in a salary bidding war for the Nobel Prize winner. His salary at UBC will be comparable to his current pay of about $300,000 (U.S.).
"This is about fitting in with UBC's educational initiatives," he said. The university had started a major research project into developing teaching techniques that would help students learn science better, he said. Prof. Wieman's research interests are in the same area.
His arrival is particularly sweet for UBC because Prof. Wieman approached the institution, and not the other way around. "He contacted me by e-mail in August," John Hepburn, former UBC dean of science and currently vice-president of research, said yesterday. Prof. Wieman wrote that he was making preliminary inquiries at a few universities in North America.
Mr. Hepburn, who was "tremendously excited" about the possibility of having a Nobel laureate on the faculty, replied that the university would obviously be interested. But he did not really believe UBC had any chance of attracting a Nobel Prize winner. "This was a long shot," he said. "The big-league American universities just pull out their cheques for Nobel Prize winners."
In response to Prof. Wieman, the former science dean tried "in a polite way" to find out how serious he was. Prof. Wieman sent back a five-page proposal to launch a major initiative in science education at the university. "I knew when that came that his inquiry was serious," Mr. Hepburn said, and he took the proposal to Mr. Whitehead.
"We started jumping up and down, thinking this would be really exciting," Mr. Hepburn said. The proposal was passed on to the university's board of directors and top administrators, who offered unanimous support.
Prof. Wieman was a little shocked when Mr. Hepburn reported back to him. UBC was the first to respond to his inquiries. It was serious, but it was preliminary, Mr. Hepburn was told. Prof. Wieman had commitments at the University of Colorado and did not want funding at the university to be jeopardized by rumours of his possible departure.
In deference to his situation, UBC brought the Nobel Prize winner to Vancouver in November ostensibly for guest lectures on atomic physics and on science education. His talks drew huge audiencess. But away from the spotlight, the university held confidential discussions with Prof. Wieman about joining the UBC science faculty.
"It was a very positive visit," Mr. Hepburn said. Prof. Wieman appeared to be impressed with UBC and to have made up his mind to move.
However Prof. Wieman indicated that he wanted to wait for a few more months before announcing his departure. "But we were optimistic after that visit," Mr. Hepburn said. They anticipated that Prof. Wieman would be back.