Have you ever wondered why, when you clap your hands in a tunnel, the sound echoes the way it does? Have you noticed how cars in the movies explode in the most improbable, seemingly incombustible situations? Christopher R. Koning ’02 says he can’t help being curious about such things. And ever since he became a Trinity physics major, he has been happily learning the theories, gaining the hands-on laboratory experience, and developing the analytical tools to, as he puts it, "figure out how stuff works." Using such tools as analyzers of nuclear decay, lasers, and powerful microscopes that operate on the atomic scale, the physics department at Trinity shows students that, in the words of Professor of Physics Mark P. Silverman, "the universe is comprehensible and worth comprehending."
Serving Students from Other Departments
The physics department has never had a narrow view of its role. While Trinity’s physics alumni have had remarkable success in top-notch graduate programs and afterwards in distinguished research and teaching careers, some have also put their skills in disciplined thinking to use in careers ranging from law to managing a symphony orchestra. Moreover, the department offers an assortment of courses that are accessible and meaningful to nonmajors.
Katie A. Lafleur ’02, a chemistry major, is taking the "Electricity and Magnetism and Waves" physics course, in part to fulfill the requirements of her major. She has found the laboratory component of the course to be a great way to put the theories learned in class into practice. In her favorite lab thus far, she and her classmates created an electron beam, enabling them to see with their own eyes that "the electrons were behaving the way they are supposed to." Lafleur praises physics faculty members for their willingness to make material accessible to all students. "I have a lot of questions, not being a physics major," says Lafleur. "And they explain things really well."
Physics courses such as "Energy and Society" and two introductory-level offerings in astronomy are geared toward a wide audience, but they are not the only way the physics department has engaged nonmajors. In recent years, Associate Professor of Physics Barbara Walden has devised a lab on the physics of sound for a linguistics course taught by Associate Professor of Modern Languages Katherine Lahti. Walden also conducted a lab for students in Associate Professor of Modern Languages Dario Del Puppo’s first-year seminar on The Divine Comedy. Dante’s famous work is full of astronomical references, and according to Del Puppo, Professor Walden "explained them in terms of the science of Dante’s time and the science of our time, pointing out when the author was right and when he was wrong." Ultimately, says Del Puppo, the scientific perspective enriched his students’ understanding of the text and its author’s view of the world.
Such connections between physics and other disciplines in the liberal arts are not so far-fetched as they might seem, observes Professor Silverman. The printing of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, he notes, helped promote ways of thinking that were characteristic of the Enlightenment. Thus, he says, "Newton and physics played an important role in the democratic and political systems that have developed since. Physics is part of our cultural heritage."
Silverman also points out that, like other fields of study in the liberal arts, a physics education teaches critical thinking that can be used in virtually any situation. "We need to make choices in the world," he says. "It’s important to have the reasoning skills to make judgments about what is conceivable and what is outlandish."