First Deep Space Walk

In 1971 during Apollo 15’s return from Earth’s moon, astronaut Al Worden performed the first deep space walk nearly 200 000 miles from Earth to recover external service module film canisters that had mapped the lunar surface. Worden was able to pause and orient himself to simultaneously see both Earth and moon as disks against the blackness of space, the first human to do so. Looking back toward the command module, he saw astronaut Jim Irwin waiting in the open hatch against the colossal moon — but did not have a camera to record the breathtaking view, the iconic photograph that never was. Fortunately, back on Earth Worden was able to collaborate with artist Pierre Mion for National Geographic magazine to reconstruct the vista. Deep space walks may occur again next decade from NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

The first deep space walk, by Al Worden reflected in Jim Irwin's visor, during Apollo 15 in 1971, as painted by Pierre Mion

The first deep space walk, by Al Worden reflected in Jim Irwin’s visor, during 1971’s Apollo 15 mission to the moon, as painted by Pierre Mion for National Geographic magazine

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Found in a Box

I recently ascended to Czar of Physics. (Oops — I mistyped Chair and it autocompleted to Czar!) It’s not my first year as Czar, but this time, during the handover from the previous Czar, I inherited a small cardboard box. Inside I found a stack of old Wooster ΣΠΣ membership cards. (ΣΠΣ is Greek for SPS and signifies the SPS honor society; SPS is an initialism for the Society of Physics Students.) The two cards in the accompanying photograph are especially interesting. Karl modestly lists his position as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His brother Arthur reports being a professor at the University of Chicago but doesn’t mention the Nobel Prize he won four years earlier for scattering light from electrons. The Compton effect helped convince physicists of the wave-particle duality of matter and subsume classical mechanics in quantum mechanics.

Wooster Compton brothers sigma pi sigma membership cards

Some Wooster Sigma Pi Sigma membership cards; click for a larger view

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If Apple Designed Buildings…

When Steve Jobs phoned Pritzker Prize architect Norman Foster in 2009 for help designing Apple’s new Cupertino California campus, he said “Don’t think of me as your client; think of me as one of your team”. The design that evolved from that collaboration features an unprecedented annular building over a mile in circumference enclosing an orchard and park. The roof is covered with solar panels and the basement is underground parking for thousands of cars. The inner and outer walls are giant uninterrupted curved panes of glass. From inside, one can always see outside to the park-like surroundings.  A thousand bikes help people get around the campus.

The combined ceiling-and-floor “void slabs” are factory-made hollow polished concrete forms. The awnings block the direct rays of the high summer sun for cooling but transmit the direct rays of the low winter sun for heating. Mirrored undersides (added after the cross sectional illustration below was created) provide indirect illumination. The new campus is powered by 100% renewable energy, and the HVAC system is only for backup. Apple Campus 2 opens in early 2017.

Apple Campus 2 partial cross section

Apple Campus 2 main building partial cross section illustrates over a mile of uninterrupted curved glass with awnings and empty spaces to passively control natural light and temperature.

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Commencement Weekend

It was a beautiful weekend for Commencement this year.  With the record number of majors (20 physics majors!!) graduating, we tried hard to get some group photos, but of course we knew it was hopeless to get absolutely everyone looking into a camera all at the same time.


Sunday of commencement weekend, we were able to gather almost half the class for a nice photo in front of Kauke Arch.  It was a little chilly at that point!

Faculty marshals begin leading the graduates through the lines of faculty and through Kauke Arch

Faculty marshals begin leading the graduates through the lines of faculty and through Kauke Arch

Monday was also slightly chilly at the start of commencement, but (speaking from experience), slightly chilly is definitely better than too warm!

One of my favorite parts of commencement is when the students precess through the lines of faculty as they walk through Kauke Arch on their way to the ceremony.  We faculty applaud the students as they walk through, and it’s a nice opportunity to congratulate individual students, if you spot them as they walk past.

The commencement ceremony was quite nice this year, with very good student speeches and a nice address from President Nugent.  And, it really kept moving, which is always good!

Many graduates and faculty!

Many graduates and faculty!

Yash, Ziyi, Maggie, Catherine, and Carlos

Yash, Ziyi, Maggie, Catherine, and Carlos

Woo Women in Physics!

Woo Women in Physics!





Congratulations, Wooster Physics Graduates of 2016!

(And if you have better pics you want me to add here — please just send them!)



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Singing in the Wind

Wires suspended above our streets are a late 19th century technology stubbornly persisting into the 21st century. They can hum in a breeze. A wire disturbs the air flow by shedding eddies alternately up and down, sometimes fast enough to be heard as a musical note. The wire’s vibration can enhance the sound’s volume and persistence.

The animation below shows a section of a wire shedding vortices and oscillating transversely to the wind. Saturation indicates wind speed (with white least), and hues indicate wind direction (with cyan rightward), like the polar plot legend. The simulation is an example of desktop computational fluid dynamics, a trans-generational collaboration between the senior thesis of Danielle Shepherd’14 and the junior thesis of Dylan Hamilton’17. Until recently, such simulations have required supercomputers.

Cross section of a wire shedding vortices and oscillating in the wind. Desktop computational fluid dynamics by Danielle Shepherd'14 and Dylan Hamilton'17 Saturation indicates wind speed (with white least); hues indicate wind direction

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April Whirlwind – Part 2!

In addition to the outreach events in April, we also had a lot going on to finish up Senior IS — the senior research project or thesis that all Wooster students complete. You might think that IS Monday is the end of IS, but after handing the thesis in, students also defend their thesis in an oral exam.
In the physics department, we ask the student to prepare a 20 minute presentation summarizing the key points of their IS project, and then after that the advisor, 2nd reader, and any other physics faculty able to attend ask questions.  Since we advised a record 17 IS theses this year, it was pretty challenging just to get all of these oral defenses scheduled before the IS symposium!

I know the IS defense is stressful for the students, but as a faculty member, it is one of my favorite parts of the IS process.  It isn’t that we are only asking questions that we know the answer to — rather the student is now the expert and we are really asking their opinion or perspective on a problem.  Because of the way that the defense requires that we pull together information from a lot of sources, and because we have multiple perspectives on the problem, it is often a time when we figure out something new, which is tremendously satisfying.

Popi smiles with relief at being done with the defense!

Popi smiles with relief at being done with the defense!


After the question period, the student steps out for a few moments, the faculty confer, and then we invite the student back in to tell them whether they have officially passed their Senior IS.  Then, we have a nice ceremony of the advisor and second reader officially signing the thesis.


Personally, I am a fan of ceremonies — it is important to take a moment and recognize an accomplishment, to take stock of where we were before and how far we have come!


Dr. Ramsey signs the thesis.

Dr. Ramsey of the Math Department signs Popi’s thesis.




Every department has slightly different traditions and requirements for their students IS defense.  In physics, we have intentionally modeled it after a Ph.D. defense, and I know that it is a bit intense.  For double majors, we do compromise between the traditions of the two different departments.  Luckily, since we have a good number of physics – math double majors, the traditions of the Math Department are pretty close to the Physics Department, so it is not too challenging to merge our requirements.


Finally, the culminating event of Senior IS is the Senior Research Symposium, held  on the next-to-the-last Friday of the spring semester.  Classes are canceled for the full day, and the whole campus takes part in an awesome celebration of the research that the students have done all year.

Physics students have always been required to do a poster presentation to complete their I.S., but we used to have our own poster session all on our own.  Since the IS Symposium started about 8 years ago, we’ve been able to be part of an all-campus event, which is more fun.

In addition to the posters, students can also elect to do a “Digital IS” presentation and develop alternative ways of presenting their IS research.  This year, senior Nathan Johnson built a Lego Mindstorms version of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to show attendees the concept of how an STM uses feedback as it scans in order to map out an image of the surface of the sample.  It was a bit challenging to get the built-in Mindstorms sensors to work well enough and the Lego pieces were not quite as rigid as we really wanted, but it worked to map out the surface, which was cool!

Nathan shows off his Mindstorms STM to President-elect Sarah Bolton

Nathan shows off his Mindstorms STM to President-elect Sarah Bolton

He had a good crowd interested in it during the digital IS session in CoRE, including President-elect Sarah Bolton.  Since she is a physicist and actually knows how an STM works, her questions were rather more perceptive than the average ones!


Overall, the IS Symposium is one of my favorite days of the year!

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April Whirlwind – Part 1!

Whew!  So much happened here in April, I’m just barely catching my breath now!

Prepping an egg for its trip to the ground.

Prepping an egg for its trip to the ground.

We had two great outreach events early in April.  The second weekend of April was the Expanding Your Horizons event, with a variety of science workshops for 5th & 6th grade girls.  This is a massive event, coordinating presenters from all over the Wooster community — not just the College. This year we were quite surprised to be having the event with 3 inches of snow!   In physics, we’ve been doing a workshop on The Humpty Dumpty Experience, which is an egg drop challenge.  Egg drops have gotten really popular, so a lot of girls have a little experience with the project.  Apparently peanut butter is the new concept in egg drop.  This year, all the girls wanted to know if they could have a jar of peanut butter.  Nope — you can have 8 popsicle sticks, 6 cotton balls, some paperboard, some string, some newspaper, 8″ of duct tape, and a plastic bag.  Even with these limits, most teams were successful in keeping their egg safe, and their eggs were retired to the Egg Hall of Fame.

DSCN7631                      DSCN7627

Girls waiting on the sidewalk for me to drop their eggs from the second floor of Taylor

Girls waiting on the sidewalk for me to drop their eggs from the second floor of Taylor

We dropped the eggs from one of the upper windows of Taylor, which worked really well.  The most amazing thing was that the wind caught  the very first egg holder that I dropped, and it went up instead of down!  We actually lost it on the roof — it never came down!










The very next weekend we held the 8th annual Science Day!  This is a student-run outreach event for the whole local community.

Physics Club coordinates with all the other Wooster science clubs and fills Taylor Hall with demonstrations — liquid nitrogen, comets, tie-dye milk, glowing pickles, DNA made from red licorice twists, erupting volcanos and sheep brains!



The Twizzler DNA station is always very popular, and just a little sticky

The Twizzler DNA station is always very popular, and just a little sticky

Tie dye milk

Tie dye milk

Michelle and Nate, stirring away in the process of making a 'comet'

Michelle and Nate, stirring away in the process of making a ‘comet’

Three young attendees particularly interested in physics and total internal reflection

Three young attendees particularly interested in physics and total internal reflection

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Into the Wind

Space X's Falcon 9 first stage successfully land on the droneship Of Course I still Love you after boosting a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, 2016 April 18

Click image to enlarge

Last month, on 2016 April 18, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivered a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station and successfully landed its 48-m first-stage booster on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic ocean. SpaceX intends to reuse such stages and perfect rocket landings on both Earth and Mars.

This landing occurred in high wind. In the accompanying photo, the Falcon tilts into the wind so that its thrust can balance both wind and gravity. Exhaust is downward and leftward, so thrust is upward and rightward. The upward component balances gravity and the rightward component balances wind. Seconds later the stage lands safely.

A high-resolution video of the landing is currently available on YouTube. Note how the Falcon 9 deploys its carbon-fiber legs just moments before landing, how the stage aligns vertically just before touchdown, how it hops on landing, how the drone ship pitches in the heavy seas. The stage is taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Simply marvelous.

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Dreaming Eyes Wide Open

Kubrick's transcendent match cut, millions of years in 1/24th of a second, from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick’s transcendent match cut, millions of years in 1/24th of a second, from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

1968. White Plains, New York. My mother takes me to a matinee of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The theater seats thousands and the movie plays continuously all day without commercials or trailers. A uniformed usher with a flashlight seats us. I stare wide-eyed, mesmerized by the images and sounds. I ask my mother what the ending means. She says, “Maybe a baby will one day reach Jupiter”. The following year, I watch spellbound as the first astronauts walk on the moon.

1975. Middlebury, Vermont. My high school busses us one hour to a mall cinema in Burlington to see a re-release of 2001. I’ve read Clarke’s poetic novel many times. The new poster features the Star Child not the space station. Some of the kids get bored. One next to me says, “I hate this music”. I tell him it’s the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss. After we return, I sit in the library pretending to read, lost in reverie. The experience of the movie reverberates in my mind, and waking life seems mundane by comparison.

1981. I’m an undergraduate at the University of Vermont. It’s a weekend evening, and 2001 is being screened in the chemistry lecture hall, projected on the wall above the chalkboards. Although it’s one of only about twenty feature films ever photographed in 70 mm, tonight we watch a 16-mm print. I sit near a couple of fellow film students, one of whom gasps when the man-ape tosses a bone club up in the air, and it falls down a nuclear warhead in orbit millions of years later — Kubrick’s transcendent match cut.

1986. I’m a Caltech graduate student. 2001 is being simulcast on TV and radio. The TV is in the lounge and someone has dragged large stereo speakers into the hallway. I listen to the film while working in my room. It’s an extraordinary soundtrack, mostly wordless. A long sequence of electronic sounds followed by many minutes of heavy breathing underscore the confrontation between Hal and Bowman. I visit the lounge as the space station and Earth waltz to the strains of the Blue Danube. In quiet amazement, someone whispers, “Whenever you hear this music, you think of this scene.”

1993. I’m a professor at The College of Wooster. I show my First-Year Seminar 2001 on laser videodisc. It’s better than videotape, except I need to flip the discs every half hour. I enhance the sound with my home stereo. Someone claims to see the thread suspending the floating pen onboard the space shuttle. I smile. There is no thread: Kubrick glued the pen to a glass plate in front of the camera (in the days before CGI). We’ve already read the novel, so I don’t expect much frustration, but I do expect some boredom. A couple students later confide that it was a revelatory and transforming experience. It is indeed a sacred film for a secular age.

Christmas, 2001. I fly to L.A. The famous Egyptian Theater on Hollywood boulevard is showing 2001 in a new 70 mm print with a digital soundtrack. I spend an hour walking around the downtown construction site of Gehry’s fantastic, twenty-first century Disney Concert Hall and then take the subway to Hollywood. The poster has the tag line, “The future is now.” The detail in the 70 mm images is amazing. With film, so much more is possible than is normally imagined, let alone realized. Great film, like no other medium, can transfix and transform us. It can sweep us away, it can make us dream, eyes wide open.

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Wooster Physics in Okinawa, Japan!

During the week before spring break, I had the opportunity to visit the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) on a research collaboration.   OIST is a graduate university in Japan that accepts only Ph.D. candidates in the sciences, and is located on Okinawa, a subtropical island in the East China Sea, a few hundred miles from Taiwan.  While there, I worked with the Light-Matter Interactions Group, led by professor Síle Nic Chormaic (see for more information on this group, which has beed doing some exciting work on the optical manipulation of matter).

During my weeklong visit, I gave three lectures to the Light-Matter Interactions Group on stable vector modes of light propagating in optical fibers, and a research seminar entitled, “Polarization-based control of spin-orbit hybrid modes of light in biphoton interference,” which showcased some recent data taken my Wooster senior Maggie Lankford as a part of her senior independent study project.



Here is a photo of myself and this year’s Wooster physics T-shirt in front of the entrance to the institute, which consists of several very large buildings built on various areas of high elevation and connected across the ensuing ravines via skybridges.

I am particularly exited about this group’s work with optical nanofibers, and enjoyed interacting with the Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers working in this area.  Optical nanofibers are standard optical fibers (with cylindrical glass cores a few microns in diameter) that have been heated over a small area and stretched, so that the fiber tapers to an hourglass shape in the heated region with a sub micron minimum diameter.  Because light cannot be localized to a volume smaller than its wavelength scale, light propagating along inside the fiber leaks out in the hourglass region while still being guided by the fiber, which allows for light-matter  interactions between object immediately outside the nanofiber.  There are several exciting directions that this research may take, including the manipulation of single atoms by the nanofiber light modes (for a recent paper by this group describing some of these directions, click here)

I feel compelled to share the great view of subtropical island terrain from my office window 🙂


In a non-physics note, some members of the group kindly took me on an excursion to Okinawa’s aquarium, where they have a giant fish tank with two giant whale sharks, which are a very large species of fish:20160311_114634_resized_1

Note the group of people standing just a couple of meters from a whale shark to get a feeling for scale.  And, I take my earlier statement back– whale sharks are indeed a “physics note”, as Dr. Manz tells me that he uses this species as an example when teaching about wave propagation of skin patterns!

I look forward to continued collaboration with this research group, which dovetails nicely with my own interests in stably propagating modes of light in optical fibers.

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