Physics Spotlight

October 2016
Photo of Professor Jonathan Machta

Jonathan Machta

Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1980)

We have chosen Professor Machta to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his research in Theoretical Statistical Physics and Computational Physics, his role as a Co-Lead in Work from Noise with the new Massachusetts Center for Autonomous Materials (MassCAM), and his continued dedication to the Physics Department. Please take a moment to check Professor Machta’s website.

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I was a math major at the University of Michigan and I did not have a strong undergraduate physics background.  I eventually found pure math to be too abstract and that I enjoyed physics more because the math it uses is grounded in physical insights.  So, I switched fields and went to graduate school in physics at the University of Illinois.  My first two years in graduate school were largely spent catching up with undergraduate physics.  I received a MSc in Physics from Illinois and then transferred to MIT for my PhD.  I would not necessarily recommend my path to the PhD but I would recommend that every physics major do as much math as reasonably possible.  My background as a student at three large universities was excellent preparation for teaching and mentoring at UMass.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

Both of my parents had graduate degrees in sciences and from a young age I knew I also wanted to be a scientist.  My physics grad school decision making was not very well informed.  I was a resident of Illinois and the University of Illinois was willing to accept me, initially without support, despite my weak physics background.  My decision to transfer to MIT was based on location and reputation.  I recommend that students do more homework than I did.  Before you make your decision, reach out to potential research advisors at schools you are interested in going to.  The reputation of a school is important but not nearly as important as finding a good mentor at whatever school you go to and then throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your thesis research project.

Briefly, explain your research:

I study how complex phenomena emerge from simple interacting components using computer simulations and analytic calculations.  Applications include magnetic systems, fluids and ecology.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Statistical physics (423) is closest to my research.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I frequently work with undergraduates on research projects.  Undergraduate students mostly do computational projects that involve writing code, doing simulations and analyzing results.  I have published five papers with undergrads and have a few more in the works.  If you are interested, come talk to me about possible projects.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

My two favorites classes for majors are the two most closely related to my research: Computational Physics and Statistical Physics.  I also enjoyed teaching two gen ed courses: Physics of Music and Physics of Weather, both of which are interests of mine.

What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I love being active outdoors:  running, hiking, biking, snow shoeing, cross-country skiing.  The White Mountains are among my favorite places.  I also love to listen to music.

We know that you are approaching retirement and have previously held the position of Department Head.  Taking that into mind, do you have any thoughts on what direction you would like to see the department go in the future?  Do you have any advice for the future Department Heads?

Growing the Department and enhancing our research programs must be a high priority.  In addition to allowing us to offer a wider range of courses, more faculty will increase students’ opportunities to participate in cutting edge research, which is the big advantage of going to a top research university like UMass.  At the same time, we need to keep our focus on excellence in teaching.  The UMass Physics Department has a culture of working together to achieve excellence in both teaching and research, and future department heads need to foster that culture.