Origins of Research and Teaching at Selected Physics Departments

Report on Forum-Sponsored Session: 2010 'April' Meeting

By Ronald E. Mickens

On Monday 15 February, the Forum sponsored an invited session on "The Origins of Research and Teaching at Selected Physics Departments." This event was co-sponsored with the Forum on Education and the American Associa­tion of Physics Teachers. The session was chaired by James Stith, and the three speakers were Hans von Baeyer (College of William and Mary), War­ren Collins (Fisk University), and Jerry Gollub (Haverford College). A goal of these presentations was to allow the speakers to highlight the significance of teaching, education, and research accomplishments of their respective physics departments. The material to follow summarizes the three presenta­tions as provided by the individual speakers.

Hans C. von Baeyer spoke on "250 Years of Physics at the College of Wil­liam and Mary: 1760 - 2010." He began by informing us that "the College of William and Mary was founded in 1693 as the second institution of higher learning after Harvard. Physics instruc­tion began in earnest with the arrival of professor of mathematics William Small of Scotland who also taught astronomy and Newtonian physics. In 1760, two hundred and fifty years ago, Thomas Jefferson became Small's student -- an association which he later credited with ‘fixing the destinies' of his life. From his College in Aberdeen Small brought to the colonies the lec­ture system as well as the use of lec­ture demonstration apparatus. When he left Virginia after six years, he took along a commission to purchase an elaborate collection of instruments in London, which was duly sent back to America. The Revolution disrupted instruction, but in 1776 Phi Beta Kappa was founded at William and Mary, and by 1779 Thomas Jefferson, as Governor of Virginia, instituted a curriculum reform that included the creation of a formal chair of ‘mathematics and natural philosophy,' as physics was then called.

"Though most of Small's equip­ment was lost to war and fire, by the middle of the nineteenth century a more modest teaching collection had been assembled. The Civil War shut down the College, and it was slow to rebound. At the beginning of the twentieth century the College became a state university and went coed. Physics continued to be taught at the undergraduate level. In the 1960s, soon after Sputnik, an MS physics pro­gram was instituted, and the faculty grew correspondingly. When nearby NASA/Langley Research Center built the Space Radiation Effects Laboratory (SREL), with a synchrocyclotron to mimic the solar wind, it was realized that the machine could also benefit physics. William and Mary, as the clos­est state institution, would take the lead in this effort. In short order a PhD program was created, the William Small Physical Laboratory was built to house it, and the physics faculty grew to about 30. To avoid becoming overly specialized, the department was care­fully structured around three major research topics (plasma, solid state, atomic & molecular), each with theo­retical as well as experimental exper­tise, in addition to accelerator-based physics. The latter group established an international reputation in ‘interme­diate energy physics' between nuclear and particle physics.

"The Physics Department helped to lead the development of the Col­lege into a small research university by spawning related PhD programs and encouraging the creation of oth­ers. At the same time the benefits of graduate research for undergraduate teaching continued to be emphasized. At William and Mary, for example, all physics majors are required to complete a senior research project, usually in collaboration with graduate students and faculty. Other examples of the department's involvement in physics teaching are the annual REU program, which has been offered since its inception by the NSF in 1987, and the hosting of the International Physics Olympiad, which came to the US for the first time in 1993.

"In the 1980's SREL became obso­lete, and the modern era began with its replacement by the US Depart­ment of Energy's Jefferson Lab. As did SREL, the Jefferson Lab benefits W&M in myriad ways. After the initial competition for the site of this electron accelerator for nuclear physics, W&M has continued to play a major role in its life. Faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates are attracted by it. Following its tradition, though, the department's research program con­tinues to be multifaceted. Solid-state physics has acquired an important NMR facility, intermediate energy physics has given way to neutrino research, and powerful lasers are used in atomic research. Today, 250 years later, both the William Small Labora­tory and the Jefferson Lab are undergo­ing significant upgrades. The legacies of Jefferson and his mentor William Small at the College of William and Mary are secure."

The second speaker was Warren Collins who presented a detailed his­tory on "80 Years of Physics at Fisk University." The University was estab­lished in Nashville, TN, by General Clinton B. Fisk within six months after the Civil War ended. The first students ranged in age from 7 to 70, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty – and an extraordinary thirst for learning. With the sponsorship of the American Missionary Association, Fisk University was incorporated on 22 August 1867.

Elmer Samuel Imes, the second African-American to achieve the PhD in Physics, received a BA degree in 1903 from Fisk University. About 1910 he returned to Fisk where he served as an instructor of mathematics and science and completed his master's degree in 1915. That same year, Imes went to the University of Michigan and began work in the laboratory of Harrison M. Randall, designing and building high-resolution infrared spec­trometers. In 1918, he published his dissertation results in The Astrophysical Journal. In the two decades after publi­cation, this work was extensively cited in research papers, books, and reviews on the spectra of diatomic molecules.

Imes returned to Fisk in 1929 to inaugurate Fisk's Physics Department and initiate a research program in infrared (IR) spectroscopy. Imes contin­ued some experimental work, but his IR spectrometer was not of sufficient quality to do world class research, so he did not publish any more scientific papers.

After Imes' death from cancer in 1941, research in IR continued (mainly after WWII) through the efforts of James R. Lawson and Nelson Fuson. Lawson had been Imes' student at Fisk, and he, along with Fuson, all did their doctoral research at Michi­gan under Randall. As a result of this close relationship, Lawson was able to obtain a research IR spectrometer built especially for Fisk by the Michigan Physics Department's machine shop.

IR research rapidly caught on at Fisk with contributions from Fuson, Lawson, Marie-Louise Josien (a French chemist who studied under Jean LeComte), and graduate students enrolled in the Physics Department's MS Degree Program. Soon the whole IR Research group was publishing their research findings in the Ameri­can Chemical Society's and American Physical Society's scientific journals. Thus, when these Fisk graduate stu­dents started reporting their scien­tific results in the Southeastern Sec­tion meetings of the ACS and APS, it became clear to the scientific com­munity in the South that they could no longer hold meetings in southern hotels that would not serve blacks.

One consequence of this situation was the holding of the 1956 SESAPS Annual Meeting at Fisk University. Fisk's faculty and students presented about 30% of the scientific papers, and the meeting's banquet speaker was Nobel Prize winner Arthur Compton.

Beginning in 1953, the Fisk IR Spectroscopy Lab decided to offer a week's program of lectures and labora­tory experiments to help industrial and governmental scientists learn infrared techniques and the interpretation of IR spectra. Fisk held this institute for more than 50 years and was aided in this effort by faculty from American universities and instrument companies, as well as scientists from government laboratories. In all, over 3,000 scientists were trained during the Fisk Infrared Institute's lifetime.

Since the 1990's, the Physics Department has acquired state-of-the-art equipment for research in surface physics, crystal growth, spectroscopy, and nanomaterials and sensors. In addition to 6 teaching faculty and 10 research faculty/staff, there are more than 20 graduate students and 20 undergraduate students involved in the various research programs.

Early in the first decade of the 21st century, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master's-to-PhD bridge program was created. This allowed students to earn the MS degree at Fisk and also obtain fast-track admission to a participat­ing Vanderbilt PhD program, all with full funding. Since 2004, the program has attracted 34 students, 30 of them underrepresented minorities (56% female), with a retention rate of 94%.

The last speaker for the session was Jerry Gollub and his topic was "Research and Education in Physics and Astronomy at Haverford Col­lege." He began by noting that "the most distinctive feature of Physics and Astronomy at Haverford College is the centrality of undergraduate research." According to the 1933 his­tory of Haverford by Rufus Jones, a required year-long course devoted to student research in physics was founded in 1920. "Each student picks a field and a problem capable of solu­tion with the apparatus available…The student covers the literature and carries out experimental work to the extent of about 100 hours each semes­ter. A detailed report…in the form of a scientific article is written each semes­ter. Students take turns giving weekly presentations about their chosen field." Reading about "Physics 10" was an eye opener to me, as I had assumed that undergraduate research originated much later.

"I found and looked at some of these early student papers, dating from 1926-30. They were substantial, about 20 pages each semester. Many included significant experimental work, some­time inconclusive, but appropriate for the state of physics at the time. All showed a substantial mastery of the corresponding literature. The projects from 1926 had titles such as ‘X-Ray Spectra and Atomic Structure,' ‘Iso­topes and Positive Rays,' and ‘Exact Determination of Longitude by the Short-Wave Radio Time Signal Meth­od.' Sometimes these early research students made mistakes, with occa­sional statements like this one: ‘The positive nucleus is built up of protons bound together by electrons.' This predates the discovery of the neutron, of course.

"It is clear from these reports that the students from this era had learned a great deal, and had shown remark­able ingenuity. These investigations do not seem to have been based on the pre-existing research programs of faculty members, which is surprising in view of current practices. Today we would also provide much better train­ing and preparation before presuming that students might do something original.

"Currently, most Haverford Physics students do research or independent work of some kind, and all present senior theses and give departmental talks about their work. Their writing is elaborately critiqued, and must be rewritten until a professional standard is achieved. Sample titles of senior theses maybe found at

"Many students publish papers with faculty mentors, and/or give talks at national meetings. In a recent two-year period, 16 students were co-authors of published papers, more than half of our undergraduates. Many students have won national awards for their work, including Goldwater and Churchill scholarships, Fulbright and Apker Awards, and (later) NSF Career Awards.

"Research training is seen by the faculty as important regardless of whether the student aspires to a career in scientific research or not. Actual career choices are broad, including almost all the professions and many neighboring scientific fields. There are quite a few prominent astrophysicists and physicists among them.

"The Physics and Astronomy cur­riculum supports this emphasis and culture of student research. For exam­ple, the Advanced Physics Laboratory teaches low noise measurement tech­niques, planning and design of experi­ments, sophisticated data analysis, effective use of library resources, and scientific writing. Experiments include work on microfluidics, quantum nano­contacts, quantum dots, and AFM imaging of synthesized nanotubes.

"Even first-year students can expe­rience the spirit of investigation, for example through a seminar on astro­physics run as a problem-solving workshop, in which students inves­tigate challenging questions such as: ‘Why is there a maximum mass of a neutron star, what is this mass, and what happens when it is exceeded?' They learn about galactic structure, collapsed stars, and black holes, going far beyond what first year students normally do."

"The practice of ‘education through research' that began in physics in 1920 spread throughout the Science Division by the 1950's, and eventu­ally to all fields of study at Haverford. Undergraduate research mentoring is built into the normal teaching responsi­bilities of faculty members. As a result, the Faculty's commitment to research is as intense as occurs in prominent graduate institutions, and the focus on independent scholarship attracts many talented students to the College."

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.