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Einstein's legacy

June 6, 2005
By Andrea Gibson

Einstein would be happy.

It's been 100 years since he published his theory of relativity and two other seminal research papers that have shaped the field of physics and astronomy - as well as our knowledge of our universe. And while Albert Einstein's contributions to science are long past, his legacy lives on today in Ohio University's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Photo by Rick FaticaThe university recently named the department's research on the Structure of the Universe - from the tiniest quarks studied by nuclear physicists to the giant galaxies under scrutiny by astronomers - as a major area of research focus in the next few years. The department, like its counterparts nationwide, also has seen a resurgence of undergraduate student interest in the field of physics. Enrollment of physics majors is up, and the department currently boasts a hot streak of undergraduates who have landed a series of nationally competitive awards such as the Goldwater Scholarship. (See related story.)

As the international science community honors the 100th anniversary of Einstein's major achievements in a celebration dubbed the World Year of Physics 2005, it's clear that it's a good time to be a physicist.

Student scientists

One hundred years ago, some scholars believed that most scientific mysteries had been solved and that there were only a few questions left to answer, says Louis Wright, the outgoing chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Enter Einstein, who proved there was still a lot we didn't know about our universe. Today's physicists still have a lot to ponder, such as the nature of dark energy and matter in the cosmos, and how the laws of physics change at the nanoscale - the tiniest realm of atoms. "It's not as dramatic of a boom as the last century, but a lot of exciting developments are coming," Wright says.

Recent developments in physics and astronomy have re-energized the discipline: The merging of physics and astronomy into the new field of astrophysics, exciting new space findings from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory that have captured the imagination of the general public and the emergence of the new science of nanotechnology, which examines how to use the laws of physics at the atomic scale to develop faster, smaller, more efficient computers and other electronic devices. A new hybrid discipline of physics and the popular biological sciences field is gaining steam as well and may attract more students in the next few years, Wright predicts.

At Ohio University, the department has seen renewed interest in the field show up in enrollment figures: the number of undergraduate physics majors has nearly doubled, from 35 students in 1998 to 62 in 2005. During the same time period, the number of graduate students in the department increased from the mid 50s to more than 70.

The small number of students, which is on target for a public school the size of Ohio University, allows for close interaction between faculty and students, says Joseph Shields, a professor of physics and astronomy who will take over as chair of the department this summer. Students have their own department mailboxes, a dedicated computer lab available for their use, and access to the department lounge for informal study sessions and weekly Society of Physics Students meetings. More than 50 percent of undergraduates go on to graduate school, a rate higher than the national average, Wright adds.

"Because the numbers are small, students are known individually, and they really feel part of the department," Shields says.

That also translates into strong opportunities for students to get involved with faculty research projects - one of the most frequently asked questions by parents of prospective students, says Heather Krugman, department administrator. As part of the Structure of the Universe project, for example, the university acquired a 1/12 share of the MDM Observatory at Kitt Peak, Ariz. Undergraduate and graduate students now have year-round access to two telescopes at a major U.S. astronomical research site. Jack Steiner, an undergraduate astrophysics major in the Honors Tutorial College, already has used the 2.4-meter telescope to study how stars form in galaxy clusters. He'll return in the fall to make observations for his senior thesis.

An energized faculty

A high number of faculty retirements in the department over the past 10 years opened up positions during a relatively tight job market for physics and astronomy faculty, Wright says. The turnover has ushered in younger faculty members who still are making strides toward their professional peaks. The current 28 faculty members also have a broader range of research interests, spanning nuclear and particle physics, astronomy, biophysics, nanotechnology and materials science, Shields notes.

"We've increased research across the board and also broadened the directions of our research," he says.

The faculty pulled in $3.8 million in external funding in the past year - even at a time when the federal government has cut funding to agencies such as the Department of Energy and has diverted NASA funding to the Mars program.

The university, meanwhile, has designated two areas in the department as major areas of research focus in the next few years. Physicists in the department will be involved in the NanoBioTechnology Initiative, which merges nanoscience, biomedical engineering, and health and medical sciences. Earlier this year, the Structure of the Universe project received $1.4 million, which is funding participation in the MDM Observatory, hiring of new faculty and undergraduate research. Researchers affiliated with the project already have made a mark on the world of physics and astronomy with studies ranging from the biggest phenomena in the universe to the smallest particles and fundamental scientific theories on how the matter in our world behaves. Discover magazine ranked two findings by Ohio University physicists in the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics on its Top 100 Science Stories of 2003 list: the discovery of a subatomic particle of matter called the pentaquark at No. 9 and the confirmation of the theory for charge symmetry breaking at No. 49. Members of the Astrophysical Institute are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies to explore cosmic structures such as black holes, galaxies and galaxy clusters.

Reaching out to new scientists

Whether it is talks at public high schools, star walks for astronomy enthusiasts or educational Web sites, the Department of Physics and Astronomy also has a strong public outreach component. "Most of the faculty are really dedicated to explaining what they do to the public and increasing interest in science," Wright says.

Faculty with the Astrophysical Institute, for example, host monthly star walks at The Ridges during spring and fall. The events offer "a naked-eye tour of the universe, from our celestial backyard to galaxies millions of light-years away, along with an inspiring nighttime hike," according to the group's Web site. The astronomers also sponsor stargazing events at local state parks for special occasions such as meteor showers and host a monthly talk show about current issues in astronomy on Ohio University public radio station WOUB 1340 AM.

Photo by Rick FaticaFaculty members with a Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team, which is funded by a $1.14 million grant from the National Science Foundation, have created an educational Web site about nanotechnology (http://nsnm.phy.ohiou.edu/index.php). The team, led by Associate Professor Art Smith, uses students from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism to develop articles for a lay audience about this new field of science. The physicists also give talks at area K-12 schools.

In addition to classroom visits, the department frequently hosts students from area public schools, Krugman says. Recently, 136 eighth-grade students from nearby Wellston, Ohio, came to the department's facilities in Clippinger Hall to get an overview of the physics and astronomy field.

With so many intriguing questions left to answer, these prospective scientists have an interesting future ahead - one perhaps not even Einstein could have imagined.

For more information about the Department of Physics and Astronomy, visit the Web at www.phy.ohiou.edu. The department will host a special open house this fall in honor of the World Year of Physics. For information about other events, visit www.phy.ohiou.edu/wyp2005.html.

Vision Ohio

This story focuses on a strong undergraduate program.

Andrea Gibson is director of Research Communications. 

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