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New faculty infuse the physics department with energy and excitement.
by Wrexie Bardaglio
Physics is the science that deals with energy, and IC's department fairly embodies its definition. With an influx of new faculty members over the past few years, it exudes a renewed energy coalescing around the notion that physics doesn't have to be an incomprehensible science. "Physics has the unfortunate reputation of being difficult and only for brainy people," says faculty member Luke Keller, an astronomer whose primary research interests are imaging and spectroscopic instrumentation, astrophysics of star formation, and planetary system formation. "But everyone has experience with physics -- for example, with gravity, when trying to determine how long it will take an object to fall."
To help make the less well-known aspects of physics more accessible to everyone, members of the department have introduced a spectrum of dynamic programs and events to honor "insiders" and attract "outsiders" -- events such as the installation of a chapter of the national physics honor society, the first-ever physics spring banquet, a series of "Physics Cafés" throughout the school year, and a physics circus highlighting Alumni Weekend 2004. Last year the Clinton B. Ford Observatory was opened to the public for viewing the proximity of Mars to Earth, and the department has plans to hold other open houses that will bring celestial matters close to earth-bound viewers. The faculty members are also absorbed in implementing classroom innovations that are at the vanguard of national reforms.
Changes in the composition of the department began five years ago, when "five-sixths of the [six-person] department was getting ready to retire," says department chair Dan Briotta. Briotta, an astronomer now with 20 years of experience at IC, had been the "new kid." But now he realized that a major change was imminent. "I'd never understood how much of the running of the department is done by senior faculty," he says. "Younger faculty are learning to teach and are involved in research. Our new faculty not only have to do what new faculty traditionally do, but they also have to take on the tasks of senior faculty -- participating in decisions about the direction the department will take."