Dear HMC Physics Alum:
It has been two years since I last wrote to many of you, so I want to bring you up to date on what has happened recently in the Department of Physics. As you may recall, at the time of my last letter we were seeking your help as the department was about to undergo a process of external review, a review that took place in February 2004. Many of you took the time to fill out an on-line questionnaire and to give us numerous comments about the physics program at Harvey Mudd, College, for which we are very grateful. The review team, which consisted of physics faculty members from Swarthmore College, Williams College, and Caltech, examined the results of this survey in addition to our own self-study. After spending somewhat more than two days on campus, visiting classes, meeting with faculty and students, the team submitted a report that included the following overall assessment:
“The physics program at Harvey Mudd College is truly excellent and among the very best at undergraduate institutions across the country. The curriculum has been carefully conceived and is effective in providing an outstanding education to students, the faculty are skilled teachers who are extremely accessible and wonderfully supportive to students, the research experiences offered to students are top-notch, the department is an important contributor to the excellence of the institution, and the people in the department enjoy an esprit de corps that allows them to work together quite effectively. In short, the department enjoys the admiration of the administration, the faculty in other departments, the students, and now this review team.
As I said in my last letter, we are always striving to make the physics program the best one possible. While we are gratified by the comments of the review team, we do know there is always room for improvement. Thus we continue to seek your feedback and very much welcome any advice that you care to offer given your own experiences since graduation from HMC.
Let me now fill you in on other recent news. Our graduates have had some outstanding successes since I last wrote to you. Nate Stern won the Apker Award in 2003 and Joseph Checkelsky was a finalist in 2004. The Apker Award is given by the American Physical Society for outstanding achievement in physics by an undergraduate. Typically, two awards are given annually. Nate and Joe both did their research under the direction of Professors James Eckert and Patricia Sparks. Nate, in addition, won a Hertz Fellowship, as did Adam Pivonka, one of this year’s graduates. These are extremely competitive awards. Adam, for example, was one of fifteen recipients nationwide from among more than 700 applicants for the Hertz Fellowship. Nate is doing graduate work in physics at UCSB, Joe at Princeton, and Adam starts at Harvard in the fall. In addition, seven HMC physics majors won National Science Foundation graduate fellowships during the 2004-2005 period, including Nicolas Breznay (Stanford), Elizabeth Main (Harvard), David Gaebler (UCLA), Kit Rodolfa (Harvard), and Steve Kolthammer (Harvard), in addition to Joe and Adam. I must admit that David (mathematics) and Kit (chemistry) won their awards in disciplines other than physics, not that we are complaining. After spending a year on a Churchill Scholarship at Churchill College in Cambridge, England, this fall Kit starts graduate work in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Roughly two-thirds of our recent graduates have chosen to go on to graduate school, while the rest have secured interesting jobs (Northrop Grumman, Oakland Unified School District, U.S. Government, Pipestone Vineyard, stay-at-home mom, …).
In the past two years, our internal research awards, the Brown and Focke awards, have gone to Ryan Yamada (Cornell), Joseph Checkelsky (Princeton), Katy Perdue (Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging), Zoe Boelkeheide (UC Berkeley), and Adele Tamboli (UCSB). Selecting our award winners typically makes for the longest department meeting of the year, since there are generally many good candidates to choose from. An increasing fraction of our students are co-authors on peer-reviewed publications and attend national and even occasionally international conferences. Katy Perdue, for example, presented her research results at a conference in Japan in April.
In terms of additional awards, Ryan Yamada received a special Rojansky Service Award this past year for his remarkable service contributions to the greater community, including organizing tsunami relief, Red Cross blood drives, and food donation to the SOVA pantry serving the county of Los Angeles. And speaking of exceptional service, special note should be taken of the fact that Kathy Morrison, our department administrative aide, won the Mary G. Binder prize for outstanding service by a staff member at the college and Professor Richard Olson ’62 (a physics alumnus) was awarded the Henry T. Mudd Prize for 29 years of exemplary service to the college.
In addition to research opportunities for students, we continue with an active clinic program, with typically one to two physics clinics per year. Professor Richard Haskell has replaced Robert Wolf as the clinic director. This coming year, for example, under the direction of Professor Peter Saeta we will devote a second year to a project sponsored by Sandia National Laboratory characterizing the optical properties of the soot emitted in combustion, with concern about the health impact and environmental consequences of these emissions. We will also have a shared project with engineering, under the direction of Dick Haskell, on the implementation of adaptive optics in a clinical ophthalmic-imaging instrument. This project is sponsored by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We are always on the lookout for good clinic projects, so if you see a potentially interesting opportunity, perhaps with a company for which you work, please don’t hesitate to let us know.
On the teaching front, we will start our third year of teaching special relativity and an introduction to quantum mechanics to the first-semester frosh. In addition to being great fun to teach, this course has been well received by the students. It falls to Professor Chih-Yung Chen, our core coordinator in physics, to explain to our colleagues in the other departments what we are doing in the core. Other changes to the curriculum include the development of a revised integrative experiences course by Peter Saeta on energy and the environment, following up on a similar course taught by Professor Daniel Petersen. This seminar course attracts students from other majors in addition to physics. Other “new” courses include Fields and Waves. This course has been a part of our curriculum for many years, of course, but as taught during the past two years by Professor Vatche Sahakian, it gives students a glimpse of how a string theorist looks at theoretical physics in general. This coming year Professor Greg Lyzenga ’75 will team up with mathematician Professor Andy Bernoff to teach a new course in fluid dynamics that we expect will draw students from both physics and mathematics. Professor Bernoff, by the way, has been a regular contributor to the physics program in his teaching of Math 115 (Fourier) and in collaborating with Professor Tom Donnelly in the study and analysis of micron-scale droplets. Professors Haskell and Petersen, together with senior majors Tera Bell and Adam Pivonka, have been leading the effort to introduce a quantum optics experiment testing the Bell inequalities into our upper-division teaching labs. And Professor Ann Esin, our astrophysicist, is contributing to the development of some new astronomy half courses in collaboration with Professor Bryan Penprase of Pomona College. One of our alums, Don Hoard ’90, will be on leave from Caltech and teaching astronomy at Pomona this year in addition to helping us out in the introductory physics labs.
This year marks the end of an era at Harvey Mudd College, as Professors Thomas Helliwell and Robert Wolf have decided to retire, after 43 and 41 years of service to the college, respectively. I had mentioned in my last letter Bob’s imminent retirement, but Tom Helliwell’s decision to retire after serving this past year as interim dean of faculty caught us by surprise. The good news is that Tom has volunteered to give the relativity lectures to the frosh one last time this fall, in commemoration of the centennial celebration of Einstein’s “miracle year,” 1905. In terms of the “old-timers” at the college, we are still fortunate to have the services of Professor Joseph Platt, who, at age 90, is still teaching a section of modern lab, with his customary panache. Just before graduation this year, as a nice thank you, the department was hit by a barrage of balloons by the graduating seniors (see http://www.physics.hmc.edu/news for pictures). Many of the balloons had interesting captions. My personal favorite was the one attached to Joseph “Soon Everything Will Be Named For Me” Platt’s door, picking up on the change of the college’s address from 12th Street to Platt Boulevard.
As I think you can see from this summary of recent activity in the Department, things are going well. But the future is always full of challenges. Continuing to attract the sort of students who have made this college successful is certainly a challenge, but one that I think the college can meet. On the faculty front, we will be doing a search this year for a new physics faculty member. Areas of particular interest include quantum optics, experimental soft condensed matter physics, and environmental physics. If you know someone who would make an outstanding faculty member, please don’t hesitate to point that person in our direction.
In closing, let me say how much we enjoy hearing from you. If you send an e-mail with any news, comments, or feedback, I will forward it to the rest of the physics faculty here.
Sincerely,John S. Townsend
Susan and Bruce Worster Professor of Physics
Chair, Department of Physics
Harvey Mudd College
Copyright © 2013
Harvey Mudd College Physics Department
241 Platt Blvd., Claremont, CA 91711
WebMaster (at) physics.hmc.edu
Last modified: 05 January 2010