In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we announce the speaker for the Winter Colloquium, highlight a new cross-departmental upper-level science course, and spotlight an outstanding alum!
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
Next week is the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. We’re already getting requests from students who are trying to depart for home as soon as they can, even before Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s a weirdly natural cycle of things … albeit embedded in a travel-difficult time itself the result of an ongoing pandemic. Even this newsletter is taking a break next week – the next issue, and one of the last for the term, will be on December 3.
I want to pause and acknowledge one more time how difficult a year this has been. We’ve been able to come back together to a limited degree – definitely in the classroom and partly outside the classroom. Nevertheless, we know that gathering again carries risks. All of us, at this point, probably know someone who has had a breakthrough COVID-19 infection. To be sure, for every one of those we can count, we know countless unvaccinated people who’ve suffered far worse infections. Our best strategy for managing this difficult time continues to be vaccination, followed by masking. For instance, today at 3pm I have my third shot (the “booster”) of the Pfizer vaccine, and I am very excited about it (even if I suspect I will have mild body aches tomorrow as my immune system mounts a response to the production of antibodies).
With the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday coming up next week, this is a chance to focus on time away from the lab and the classroom, and time with friends and family. I know my emotional and mental batteries are running close to dry at this point, and a small recharge will do me wonders. I am reminded of the words of mathematician J.E. Littlewood, first brought to my attention by Prof. Loyal Durand at UW-Madison, which are paraphrased as “Use vacations to refresh creativity.”
I want to use this message this week to simply wish all of you a wonderful holiday break. You’ve earned it. We still have 3 weeks to go after the break (through the end of final exams), so don’t overwork yourself in the coming days. A break now means better work, more focus, and more enjoyment of your creative and collaborative efforts in the coming weeks. Treat yourself!
In this week’s newsletter, we announce the speaker for the Winter Colloquium, highlight a new cross-departmental upper-level science course, and spotlight an outstanding alum.
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
The December 6th Winter Colloquium Will Feature UTA Presidential Distinguished Professor of Physics David Nygren
We are pleased to announce that the Winter Colloquium, the culminating event of the fall Department Speaker Series, will feature Dr. David Nygren. Dr. Nygren is the Presidential Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Arlington. Among his many accomplishments, he is known as the inventor of the Time Projection Chamber (TPC), a detector technology capable of producing high-resolution 3-dimensional images of subatomic particle interactions.
Dr. Nygren will present a talk entitled “The Art of Experiment and the Pace of Discovery in Particle Physics.” We welcome all members of the department, university, and our community to join us for this event. Save the date!
The Winter Colloquium will be a chance not only for intellectual delight, but also for the Department to share in a community event. Following the colloquium, a reception will be held for the department. This will be a chance to relax, socialize, and unwind after the last day of classes of the fall term. In addition, this will be a chance to engage with Dr. Nygren in a more relaxed setting. Physics Department members should watch for communications about this reception in the coming days.
Learn more: https://www.physics.smu.edu/web/seminars/
All past speaker series events since August 2020 are available in our YouTube playlist.
Spring 2022: “Astro-eXtraordinary” Course Launches
The story of this course begins about two years ago, when faculty and students in the Earth Science, Chemistry, and Mechanical Engineering forged a Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute (DCII) cluster entitled “Comparative Planetology: Geology, Chemistry, and Physics in Current and Future NASA Mission Science.” The cluster was convened by Dr. Rita Economos, Dr. Volkan Otugan, Dr. Tomče Runčevski, Dr. Matthew Siegler; graduate students Lorenzo Tavazzani and Christina McConville; and undergraduate Mackenzie White.
One of the aims of the cluster, in addition to developing ideas for future research proposals at SMU, was to bring together faculty from across the disciplines who have an interest in a common area – comparative planetology, the study of different planets in relation to Earth – that has no home at SMU. Such a cross-cutting idea as the exploration and comparison of whole worlds also benefits from a “whole science” approach. All the disciplines are needed to make sense of something as complex and grand as a planet.
The move of the University to raise its research prominence again, with the stated goal of rising to “R1” research university status, has resulted in clusters of hire in the last year. Curiously, despite many faculty at SMU being involved in the study of the cosmos beyond the Earth and its organisms, this cross-cutting idea did not rise to the fore. Nevertheless, the faculty conveners of the original DCII cluster, as well as faculty who participated in cluster events and discussion, longed for more.
This led to a hallway conversation between some of the faculty who convened or participated in the cluster, and from that hallway conversation came a wish: for a cross-cutting science course at SMU that explores the whole cosmos through the many lenses of the disciplines who train their minds on this universe. What resulted is “SCI-4301: Astro-eXtraordinary – the Universe Beyond Earth,” which launches in Spring 2022.
The course is cross-cutting in many ways. First, it is a coordinated effort of nine faculty! Efforts in the Departments of Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics are represented in the Spring 2022 semester, though the course was planned with input from the Mathematics Department as well. Obviously, inclusion of more faculty from other departments is envisioned. The course is designed to be taught every two years, allowing time for invite broader participation and rejuventate the line-up and topics on a multi-year basis.
The course is intended as a lecture- and writing-heavy class, with the following aims:
This course is designed to draw on a wide range of expertise at SMU, and potentially beyond theCourse Syllabus
university, to allow students to engage in specific areas of “Astro-X” while nonetheless gaining insight to
the greater context of these subjects. Here, “Astro-X” refers to a range of disciplines regarding the study
of the universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere. These include, but are not limited to, cosmology,
astrochemistry (cosmochemistry), exo-moon and exoplanetary geoscience, astronomy, astrophysical
modeling, and astroparticle physics. A student who completes this course will …
• Describe how distinct scientific disciplines each inform our understanding of the cosmos;
• Demonstrate how different disciplines can be used to solve a specific problem, or related set of
• Compare and contrast different scientific approaches to understanding the cosmos.
Any student who has completed introductory-level calculus at SMU, and then in addition ANY of the introductory course sequences in either of Earth Science, Chemistry, or Physics is permitted to enroll in the course. The course materials will proceed in units over the spring semester, with a new instructor taking over from the previous one in each unit and developing the theme of exploring the cosmos with applications from their actual research practice. The course will evaluate students on how they understand connections between the disciplines, even as each discipline shows its own strengths and weaknesses in approaching an understanding of the universe beyond the Earth.
What’d I Miss?
We all get too many emails from the University and College. Here are the most important things you might have missed that affect our community.
- All Employees: The University has determined that all employees must be vaccinated, in accordance with Federal policy. This is a Federal requirement the University has determined it must meet. Here is the announcement: https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/2021/11/19/important-information-for-smu-employees-about-federal-vaccine-mandate/
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of your activities in research, the classroom, and beyond are very welcome!
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Academic Operations (Lacey Breaux) and Research Operations (Michele Hill). They can be contacted for assistance, or to make appointments for input and help, through the Department Main Office (FOSC 102).
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of students in research, the classroom, internships or fellowships, awards, etc. are very welcome!
Honors Physics Poster Presentation Night: Dec. 6 from 6-7:30pm in the Mack Ballroom
The Honors Introductory Physics students will be presenting the results of their semester-long projects on the night of December 6, 2021. The class reached a record enrollment this semester of 27 students (the previous record, tied only once, was 16). As a result, the 8 teams (a mix of 3 and 4 students each) don’t fit comfortably in the Dallas Hall Rotunda, as we have done in the past. The event is moved to the Mack Ballroom, providing ample space for people to talk to the students, discuss projects, and spread the projects around the space to facilitate movement and comfort.
The Physics Department and its community are welcomed to this event. Students are peer-assessed by the audience at the end of the term, and your participation is a crucial and valuable part of this event. Feedback on a project from an audience, both technical and general, is crucial to the development of young researchers. None of us is perfect and all of us make mistakes; your engagement in their projects is meant to help them develop as young researchers.
This semester’s course theme was “The Physics of Cartoons.” Students were invited to explore, in the context of animation and cartoons, the representation, exaggeration, accuracy, and downright silliness of physical phenomena. Several teams have conducted hands-on experiments as a result of their exploration, including scratch-building a small-scale wind tunnel and exploring impact and forces. This will be an excited event for the students and for you!
If you are an alum of the doctoral, masters, majors or minor programs in Physics at SMU, or have worked in our program as a post-doctoral researcher, and wish to share news with the community, please send your story to the Physics Department and we’ll work with you to get it included in a future edition.
Spotlight: Dr. Lee Pondrom (BS’53) – Distinguished Alum, Physicist and Writer
Prof. Lee Pondrom earned his B.S. in Physics from SMU in 1953. His career since then was highlighted in the Spring 2021 Department Newsletter. In this update, we note that he is also a published author. In 2020, his book on the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project was published (The Soviet Atomic Project: How the Soviet Union Obtained the Atomic Bomb. Published by WSPC. 2020). He has a forthcoming book on beginner-level high-energy particle physics, which will appear in early 2022 (“Introduction to High Energy Physics”. Forthcoming from World Scientific Pub Co Inc. January, 2022.). We are proud of all our alumni and are excited to be able to highlight these two intellectual contributions to sustained human knowledge.
THE BACK PAGE
Helping Each Other
The Provost reminded us this past week of the stresses we are all under, especially as we enter the holiday season in the U.S. If someone you know is in crisis, there are many ways to help them. Here are some resources. Most importantly, try to refer them to professionals who are trained to meet their needs. Here is some referral Information:
Counseling Services, 214-768-2277
Office of the Dean of Students, 214-768-4564
Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, 214-768-4502
SMU Police Department, 214-768-3388