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Physics thrives in the Southwest.
By Abigail Dove | October 13, 2022
The APS Four Corners Section will meet this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
On October 14, at the annual meeting of the APS Four Corners Section, hundreds of physicists will gather in Albuquerque to discuss very small things — and, in Sarah Kendrew’s case, very large ones.
Kendrew, a scientist at the European Space Agency and plenary speaker at the meeting, works on the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which can spy on ancient parts of the universe formed soon after the Big Bang. JWST’s first images were released this July.
“Anywhere you point, there are galaxies. It’s unprecedented for an infrared telescope to show us such a wealth of data, and we have barely scratched the surface,” she says.
Kendrew will share the plenary roster with other leading physicists in the four corners region. Established in 1998, the Four Corners Section, or 4CS, is a hub for 1,800 APS members in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. APS’s geographical sections let physicists connect in their own regions and foster collaborations between nearby companies, schools, and national laboratories, like — in 4CS’s case — Los Alamos, Sandia, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratories.
This year’s meeting, expected to draw 200 participants, will be the Section’s first in-person gathering since 2019. The meeting’s plenary sessions will touch on everything from nanoscale protein interactions to the use of machine learning to study chemical properties.
Astrophysics is a big-ticket agenda item. During her session, Kendrew will discuss not only the JWST images, but her experience watching the launch and working on the team that ensured the scientific instruments on board, a million miles away, were aligned and calibrated.
Maria Rodriguez, another plenary speaker and a theoretical physicist at Utah State University, will discuss black holes, the hungry mouths at the center of many galaxies. “Black holes used to be invisible, but now something miraculous is happening in that we are able to measure what they are doing,” said Rodriguez. Her talk will trace the evolution of our knowledge of black holes, from the detection of gravitational waves to the shadows of black holes glimpsed by the Event Horizon Telescope and the JWST, which could help scientists understand black holes’ behavior.
Diana Dragomir, an exoplanetologist at the University of New Mexico, will present on NASA’s TESS telescope. Launched in 2018, TESS was designed primarily to find exoplanets, but it has been vital for research on supernovae, black holes, and asteroids. In its first year online, TESS fueled as many research publications as the much larger, more expensive Hubble Space Telescope, earning TESS a reputation as “the little telescope that could.”
“When we put even small telescopes in space and start looking, we often end up finding a lot more than we thought we would,” says Dragomir.
To encourage participation, 4CS’s meeting locations rotate between the four states from year to year. “Even the next state over can be 300 or 500 miles away,” says David Dunlap, a physics professor at the University of New Mexico who led planning for the meeting. “Some people fly, others caravan in cars, others send groups of students in buses. One way or another, people get here.” To increase access, the Section waives registration fees for students with limited funding and offers travel grants. This year, the plenary talks will be broadcast on Zoom.
Over the past 25 years, the meeting’s goals have evolved. When it was founded, “the main purpose of the meeting was to meet colleagues,” Dunlap says. “In the ensuing years, more of an effort was made to have the meeting be an opportunity for graduate students. Then, over the past decade, with undergraduate research ramping up, we’ve seen the makeup of students at the meeting shift to 50% graduate students and 50% undergraduate students.”
This shift to students has shaped the meeting’s activities, including a crowd favorite: a session for the Harry Lustig Award, which offers a $1,000 prize for graduate research. Three finalists deliver back-to-back, 30-minute talks, and the winner is decided on the spot afterward.
The Section enables collaboration and even resource-sharing for students and senior scientists alike. For example, its instrument exchange program lets researchers sell lab instruments to other local scientists for far cheaper than new equipment. And one initiative funds projects that bring physics to primary and secondary school students, particularly from groups underrepresented in the field. Increasing representation is a 4CS priority, said Pearl Sandick, a physics professor at the University of Utah, and Section chair.
“I would love to see membership grow and reflect the diversity of the region,” Sandick said.
Abigail Dove is a writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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