Big Bang-Up Year

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A stellar year brings the physics 
department full circle—and orbit.

By John Syme

It was a year for highlights in physics at Davidson.

Four physics students—heirs to their academically adventurous forebears who produced one of the first X-ray images in the United States in 1896—had a lot to live up to at the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress in Orlando, Fla. That’s because Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society that co-sponsored the congress, was founded at Davidson in 1922. The first congress was held on campus six years later.

Nine decades later, Davidson students brought the college’s alpha chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma full circle to “PhysCon,” accompanied by Professor of Physics Mario Belloni.

Jessie Barrick ’14, Ashley Finger ’14, Jacob Simmonds ’15 and Chris Trennepohl ’14 helped to plan the event, introduced a world-renowned astrophysicist, reported a Society of Physics Students story about exoplanets, presented a poster of their work with local middle school math and science classes, and won an outstanding student research poster grand prize. They even got to meet a physics consultant for the hit television show “The Big Bang Theory”!

Davidson’s ubiquitous solar-panel cart is another success story. The cart, which can charge batteries and power equipment at events, resulted from collaboration among Southern Energy Management, which installed solar panels on the roof of Baker Sports Complex, the Davidson physical plant department, and three students working with Professor of Physics Tim Gfroerer: Hunter Strader ’12, Hartman Saylor ’15, and Claire Naisby ’12.

Physics major Sam Castle ’14 spent his fall semester studying meteors during an internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Castle said, “Most meteors we see are produced by surprisingly small particles with large kinetic energies because of their high speed, sometimes as fast as 72 kilometers per second.”

The Davidson-at-NASA news doesn’t end with Castle. In December, Tom Marshburn, M.D. ’82 left Earth for the International Space Station—his second trip and one of the longest stays there to date, lasting five months.

“[Private] companies and NASA like people who are well-rounded…That’s one reason why liberal arts education and being at a liberal arts school is so important.”

From 230 miles up and 175,000 miles per hour, Marshburn made history in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room in April by being the first alumnus to take Davidson students’ questions from space. Richardson Professor of Physics Larry Cain emceed the live-streamed event.

“[Private] companies and NASA like people who are well-rounded,” Marshburn said in response to a question about preparing to be an astronaut. “That’s one reason why liberal arts education and being at a liberal arts school is so important.”

The next academic year portends more good things, when the department welcomes its first astronomer, Kristen Thompson. Thompson will teach astronomy and an astrophysics course in the spring semester.

Whether it’s a public viewing of the transit of Venus across the sun hosted by the physics department on Chambers Lawn, a liquid-nitrogen ping-pong ball cannon by the flagpole as exams approached, or the upcoming Smith Lecturer John Mather, a 2006 Nobel Prize winner for his work on cosmic microwave background radiation—physics at Davidson is making a big bang!

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