Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Adam F. Falk ’87
Adam F. Falk says he was a “pretty normal kid,” but at 14 he found a rather unusual calling—the study of theoretical physics. It was 1979, and it was the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. The flood of television programs about Einstein and his theory of relativity grabbed Adam’s imagination and inspired him to learn more.
This is part of what he wrote while a student at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, in his application essay for the Morehead scholarship: “My life’s goal is clear to me: to make a significant contribution in the field of theoretical physics, the field that I love. I am confident that I will succeed.”
Chuck Lovelace ’77, director of the Morehead Foundation, found that kind of focus to be rare. “His essay clearly points out as a high school senior what he wants to do in life, and it is so rare that someone has that vision and follows through on it,” Chuck said. “It’s almost eerie when you read it and see what he’s done. It’s really remarkable.”
A native of Chapel Hill, Adam now is dean of the faculty at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at JohnsHopkinsUniversity and a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, where he has taught since 1994. Before that, he was an assistant project scientist at the University of California at San Diego and research associate at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He holds a master’s and Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Harvard, where he was a John Parker Scholar in the Merit Fellowship Program; a graduate fellow with the National Science Foundation; and won four Danforth Awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching and two White Awards for excellence in undergraduate physics instruction.
At Johns Hopkins, Adam has received numerous honors, including the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award; the Young Investigator award from the National Science Foundation; and the Outstanding Junior Investigator award from the U.S. Department of Energy. He was a Cottrell Scholar for the Research Corporation, had an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship and was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society.
But even before he regaled his mentors with a thesis entitled “The Heavy Quark Effective Theory,” Adam excelled at Carolina. He was a Morehead Fellow whose physics degree was conferred with the highest distinction. He won the Paul E. Shearin Award and the Daniel Johnson Prize from the Department of Physics & Astronomy; and the Alfred Brauer Prize in Number Theory and the Archibald Henderson Award from the Department of Mathematics. Adam was Phi Beta Kappa Chapter Vice President and a member of Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society. He was captain of the Varsity College Bowl team, which twice was the National Invitational Tournament Champions. He somehow found time to play intramural basketball and volleyball.
Adam tells the story of the late Robert R. Wilson, a Cornell physicist and former director of the Enrico Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. In 1969, while testifying before a congressional committee, a senator demanded to know how a multimillion-dollar particle accelerator improved the security of the country. Wilson replied: “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”
Growing up, two things really mattered to Adam: science and universities. His father, the late David Falk, was a professor and former chair of the UNC philosophy department. His mother, the late Ruth Loewe Falk, was a clinical psychologist at UNC Hospitals. Adam grew up, he says, thinking about universities as uniquely important institutions in our society.
At Johns Hopkins, Adam’s responsibilities have included research, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses, and university and departmental service. He has been published widely and has presented extensively. In his duel role as a dean, he has academic and budgetary oversight of about 280 tenure track faculty members in 23 departments and 15 independent centers and programs. He says his favorite part of his job is interacting with students and faculty.
Adam says studying high-energy physics is important because it involves the most fundamental laws of nature. “It is extraordinarily interesting to me,” he says, “to understand what the universe is made of, how it is put together at the shortest distances, and what are the most fundamental laws that govern it.
“I don’t do this research because it makes the world materially better but because it makes the world more interesting. These are fundamental questions that we, as human beings, ought to think about.”
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