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The Dayside : Michigan wins!

By: Charles Day
Fri Mar 21 12:00:00 UTC 2014

March Madness—or, to use its full name, the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship—is one of the most watched and celebrated events on the US sporting calendar. Every year, 68 of the best US college teams play in a six-round single-elimination tournament.

Predicting which team will win each game, all the way through to the final, is a popular pastime—and a challenging one. A randomly chosen set of 67 victors has a probability of 1 in 1.47 × 1018 of being completely correct. With odds like that, the mortgage company Quicken Loans confidently bet $1 billion that no one could do it.

In previous years I refrained from filling out a "bracket," as a completed set of predicted victors is known. Growing up in Wales, I never played the game as child nor acquired the habit of watching it as an adult. This year, however, I decided to join in the fun. And I decided to use a physics-based criterion to choose the winners of all 67 games.

There are various ways one could conceivably rank a university's strength in physics. Annual citations in Physical Review Letters, say, or the total amount of grant money a university's physicists had won. But neither of those quantities is especially easy to determine for even one university, let alone all 68.

There is at least one real connection between physics and basketball success. Nick Hovath (shown here) was a double major in English and physics at Duke University. He was also a member of the university's championship-winning 2000–1 team.

There is at least one real connection between physics and basketball success. Nick Horvath (shown here) was a double major in English and physics at Duke University. He was also a member of the university's championship-winning 2000–2001 team.

After some thought and experiment, I opted to use the number of full-time physics faculty members—that is, everyone listed on a department's website who had the word "professor" in his or her title. For one thing, it's fairly easy to use a Web browser to count the instances of "professor" on a faculty webpage. What's more, because universities pay their full-time staff, the size of its physics faculty reflects, however imperfectly, a university's financial commitment to our favorite subject.

I left out emeritus professors from my counts, but only because they are not paid. And I left out research professors because their funding comes mostly from grants, not their university. Emeritus and research professors very definitely contribute to their department's success.

One potential problem with my criterion concerned astronomy. Most US astronomers belong to departments of physics and astronomy. But a few, notably this year's Ivy League champions Harvard University, have separate astronomy and physics departments. If I combined the two departments' professorial totals, Harvard would be my champion. But I already knew of Harvard's standalone astronomy department. Checking which of the other 67 universities also have standalone astronomy departments was too much extra effort. Too bad, Harvard.

The exercise of filling out my bracket was interesting and enlightening. Perhaps because of my ignorance of college basketball and my incomplete knowledge of US higher education institutions, there were some universities among the 68 teams that I had never heard of, such as Manhattan College and Mercer University. From what I could tell, those universities have thriving physics departments. Indeed, only 1 of the 68 universities had zero physics faculty: Mount St Mary college in Maryland, which lost its first game, a play-in.

My Final Four consists of Harvard, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and my eventual winner, the University of Michigan. Amazingly, at least to me, Michigan's physics department (which includes astronomers) lists 72 professors! That total is only eight short of the entire faculty of St John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

It remains to be seen whether Michigan reaches and wins the final. My physics-based bracket successfully predicted the outcomes of all four play-in games and Harvard's upset victory over the University of Cincinnati. But of the 16 first-round games played so far, only 8 of my teams prevailed.

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