HARTFORD, CT, May 2, 2012 – Mark P. Silverman’s inaugural lecture as the George A. Jarvis Professor of Physics at Trinity College drew an appreciative audience of scientists and non-scientists alike to McCook Auditorium on March 30, 2012. Entitled “A Series of Fortunate Events: Serendipitous Encounters with the Laws of Physics,” the presentation included a sampling of Silverman’s investigations into the enigmas of physics.
Silverman's research focuses on the behavior of light, the structure of matter, and the evolution of collapsed stars that have exhausted their nuclear fuel. Often Trinity students collaborate on this research alongside Silverman.
One series of experiments he described involved the scattering of light from media with unusual optical properties. Silverman asked, “Why can't we see through a glass of milk if we hold it up to the light? It appears opaque, however, it is not that the milk is absorbing light,” he explained. “It is that the light is scattering in all directions, due to the fat globules within the milk.” To see an object clearly through a surrounding medium, the viewer “must receive light that has passed directly from the object to one’s eyes or instruments without diffusive scattering.”
An outcome of these experiments was the development of a polarimetric method for imaging objects embedded in visually opaque media. Applications that this imaging method can be used for include navigation of airport runways in fog, and medical imaging to detect a malignancy without the use of tissue-damaging radiation.
Another project addressed an area of conflict within James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, established in the 19th century by the scientist who unified electricity, magnetism, and light. Silverman described an investigation into the interaction of light with chiral media. For those unfamiliar with the term, he explained that chirality refers to left- or right-handedness. In this project, experiments measured the difference in specular reflection of right and left circularly polarized light from selected optically active fluids and crystals, which, he said, involved “measuring something that is about one part in 100 million.”
In addition to targeting a fundamental controversial issue in the electrodynamics of chiral media, the experiments tested a new approach to the spectroscopy of chiral materials. Four Trinity physics majors worked on the research with Silverman and a Paris-based researcher with whom he collaborated over six years –“originally we anticipated it would be a one-semester project,” he said.
Besides formal studies of a scholarly nature, Silverman described experiments he and his students have pursued in the category of ‘physics for amusement.” One such study involved the musical properties of a Coke bottle—actually about 10 bottles filled with different volumes of water—to learn about waves and vibrations. Silverman and his student discovered that the relation between the resonant sound frequency and the level of water in the bottle could be predicted from a model—not of an organ pipe, which the bottle resembled visually—but by an electrical circuit with inductance, capacitance, and resistance.
At a reception following the lecture, physics and engineering double major Lorenzo Sewanan ’12 said his decision to major in physics was inspired by the enthusiasm with which Silverman teaches. “He presents his subject with such excitement and passion, you can't help but want to learn it,” said Sewanan. “One of the things that makes Professor Silverman so interesting as a scientist is that he's always engaged in many different things—he has a breadth of experience and energy that is rare. It's a privilege to study physics with him.”
Silverman, who joined the Trinity faculty in 1982, was named Jarvis Professor of Physics in 2011 for his original scientific research in quantum, optical and nuclear physics, as well as his books on physics designed for a non-scientific readership. During his career, he has been the Joliot Professor of Physics at the Ecole Superieure de Physique et Chimie Industrielles in Paris, the Erskine Professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the first western scientist to be chief researcher at the Hitachi Advanced Research Laboratory near Tokyo.
He is the author of six books with a seventh – on statistical physics and randomness – to be published by Cambridge University Press. His books include: And Yet It Moves: Strange Systems and Subtle Questions in Physics; More Than One Mystery: Explorations in Quantum Interference; Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning; Probing The Atom: Interactions of Coupled States, Fast Beams, and Loose Electrons; A Universe of Atoms, An Atom in the Universe; and Quantum Superposition: Counterintuitive Consequences of Coherence, Entanglement and Interference.
The George A. Jarvis Professorship was endowed at Trinity in 1918 through a bequest of Maria Jarvis in memory of her husband, George Atwater Jarvis (1806-1893), of Brooklyn, NY. Jarvis was in the dry goods and insurance businesses.
Although he was not a graduate or trustee of the College, Jarvis was a generous donor, providing funding for the construction of the Jarvis Scientific Laboratory at Trinity in 1888 (razed in 1963 to make way for the Austin Arts Center) and bequeathing funds to the endowment for general purposes of the College.
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