Black holes loom large in the public imagination. Mathematical physicist Adam Helfer offers a definition: “Roughly speaking, a black hole is a region from which nothing can ever escape.” In other words, in its most simple definition (one uncomplicated, for the moment, by the nuances of scientific inquiry), it is the Alcatraz of the cosmos.
During our recent visit, Dr. Helfer, Professor of Mathematics and Adjunct Professor of Physics & Astronomy, cautions that black holes are only a portion of what he studies, but in general, he enjoys working on problems with real-world applications. Regardless of his topic, Dr. Helfer is a prime example of a scholar whose interests lie at the intersection of different fields—in this case, mathematics and physics.
“What does it mean to see an object?” Gavin King’s question at first seems philosophical. During last year’s Biophysics and Your Body summer program, King’s collaborators posed a task for a group of middle school students: determine the contents of a shoebox without opening it. The students were given some materials and left to their creative wills.
Dr. Michael Glascock defines archaeometry as the combination of several scientific practices—“chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, statistics, etc.”—used to analyze manmade and natural artifacts. Dr. Glascock is a research professor with the Archeometry Lab at the MU Research Reactor, where he tracks trade routes and preferred materials of ancient peoples. He has lectured around the world and promotes the philosophy he applies to his work here: archaeometry is, by definition, a cooperative field, and Glascock believes in the collaborative process. He says, “It’s really the team of archaeologists plus physicists and chemists getting together—they can produce a really good product.” His hope is that this successful approach can lend itself to other labs.
The shelves of Dr. Dorina Kosztin’s office are full of colorful toys and apparatus, all demonstrating the power of science. As a physics professor, she is particularly fond of these toys because they show the practical, real-world dimensions of her field, well beyond the abstract equations and formulas typical of textbooks. Indeed, Dr. Kosztin has devoted her life to making physics a more accessible subject for students. Through her ongoing work, she has initiated major changes not only for programs in American institutions but in the very foundations of its classrooms.
Great celestial bodies populate the solar system. For an untrained eye staring at the heavens, the starlight spectacles and endless seas of blackness are nothing short of a miracle. Researchers, however, have developed mathematical equations that may help us understand such mysteries of the universe. From Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the scientific community has paved the way for a greater understanding of the great beyond.
Craig Kluever’s dream was born as he found himself awestruck in front of a grainy black-and-white television screen watching Apollo 11 land on the moon. He was in kindergarten. As he puts it, “that just made a big impact on me. Of course, the first thing I wanted to be was an astronaut.” Those early dreams of becoming an astronaut turned instead into a pursuit of the science behind the rockets. Today, the MU Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering works behind the scenes to solve the kind of problems involved in designing space travel—such as how to take off, how to reach a target, and, more importantly, how to return safely to Earth.
Becoming a geologist was not the original aspiration for Mian Liu, Professor of Geological Sciences. The Chinese government assigned him to the discipline when he was 17 years old, a course of study he later followed at Nanjing University. His initial lack of interest in geology had much to do with the way the subject was taught. “The focus was not on understanding the processes; we were forced to memorize lots of facts,” he explains. Instead, Liu’s earliest interest was in physics, which “just seemed more intuitive.” He began sitting in on a variety of lectures and found that he preferred learning about geophysics, the physics of the Earth, eventually earning a Ph.D. in that area from the University of Arizona.
Meera Chandrasekhar, Professor of Physics at MU, describes herself as “a condensed matter experimentalist,” that is, a physicist who studies a class of materials called condensed matter systems (formerly known as “solids”). Within this class are three types of materials: insulators (Styrofoam, plastic, and rubber), which do not allow electricity to flow; conductors (metals), which do allow electricity to flow; and semiconductors, which “have conductivities in between that of insulators and conductors.” Chandrasekhar has spent most of her research career seeking to understand the special properties of this “in between” class of materials, and she speaks lovingly about how these semiconductors are unusual by virtue of their limited electrical conductivity and their particular response to light.
Dr. Helfer describes how his interest in the problem of energy led him to explore the phenomenon of black holes and Stephen Hawkin’s theories.
Dr. Helfer’s goal is to pursue solutions to problems that have real world applications.
One of Dr. Helfer’s more recent projects, working on theories of gravitational waves, involves the application of his geometry background to problems of energy.
A black holes—which are theorized to be a region of spacetime from which nothing can escape—remain somewhat a mystery, but scientists use indirect evidence to describe them.
Interviewees tell about how they are working to further their disciplines with their contributions.
Dr. King discusses how the tools of physics are applied to biology.
Dr. King describes how, on a whim, he took a course on Einstein—and was hooked on physics.
Glascock summarizes his inspiration for getting into archeaometry, and then describes the complexion and functionality of the group he leads.
Glascock defines the field of archaeometry, and then details his personal approach to the field. He also notes his attempts to reach out to the archaeometric community in order to further the science.
Dr. Kosztin talks about her educational history across different countries and cultures, and how her love for physics developed.
Huge halls full of students can make it a challenge to keep a physics lecture interesting. Dr. Kosztin uses technology to coax her students into becoming more involved in their own learning experience.
After winning the William T. Kemper Fellowship, Dr. Kosztin thanked her students with a pizza party—but didn’t let the learning take a break! In this segment she also discusses various real-world examples of physical principles.
Along with MU Professor Meera Chandrasekhar, Dr. Kosztin works with a summer seminar for high school teachers called “Physics First.” Its goal is to integrate physics into ninth-grade classrooms.
Dr. Kosztin continues her discussion of “Physics First,” as well as the secondary goal of creating department leaders from among the seminar participants. Working on “Physics First” also provided her a model to use for her own Education class at Mizzou.
Dr. Kosztin performs experiments with sounds at the Physics and Chemistry Open House.
When asked about why they were drawn to this area of research or creative activity, MU faculty provide interesting and compelling responses. In some cases, they continued in school because the drive to learn new things was so great, because family provided a sense of identity and career direction, or because of initial interest in a related field. In other cases, they stumbled upon the field quite by accident. Regardless of the reason, the passion they hold for their work is obvious.
Chicone describes how he became interested in studying mathematics. Beginning with positive experiences he had as a student, his love for the subject continued
Beyond his passion for mathematics, Chicone’s favorite pastime is building furniture. He finds it amusing that people try to find a connection between his interests, and insists that woodworking is a love completely outside of math.
As a researcher at MU, Chicone spends a large portion of his time working with students. As an instructor involved with both graduate and undergraduate students, Chicone says that he learns a great deal from those he teaches.
Chicone contributes to other fields of science outside of mathematics, cooperating, for example, with MU’s Medical School and School of Engineering to produce the kind of mathematical models that now play an integral role in designing predictions for scientific experiments.
Chicone discusses his recent work on the velocity of particles moving near a black hole. Based on his research, particles moving faster than 70% of the speed of light that travel along the black hole’s axis decelerate, but objects moving perpendicular to that axis accelerate. These findings defy Newton’s Laws and obey Einstein’s Laws of General Relativity.
Chicone discusses the fundamental importance of mathematics for the natural world, observing that mathematics serves an array of practical purposes. He gives the example of one of his students, who freezes tissue for a project in cryobiology. The researchers working on this project are using mathematical models to make predictions about the behavior of living cells.
Chicone believes math is an artistic expression like music, painting, and theatre. Not everyone can identify with this art, he admits, but those who can are able to develop a strong appreciation for problem-solving.
In the most basic definition of his field, Kluever explains that engineers apply math and science knowledge to real problems, taking existing knowledge from mathematics and the physical sciences to construct some real device or to make some system better. “What do engineers do at work?” he laughs irreverently, “they go to a lot of meetings, they work on projects, and they try to stay on budget!”
Becoming a geologist was not the original aspiration for Mian Liu, Professor of Geological Sciences. The Chinese government assigned him to the discipline when he was 17 years old, a course of study he later followed at Nanjing University. Liu’s earliest interest was in physics, which “just seemed more intuitive.” He currently teaches and researches geophysics at MU. Liu explains to his students that “anything you are interested in you can find in geosciences.”
The early semiconductors were all inorganic materials (such as silicon), of which there is a limited supply. Chandrasekhar is now looking at organic semiconductors, which present many exciting possibilities.
Chandrasekhar’s research simply could not be accomplished without a good deal of collaboration with other people.
Beyond her research, Chandrasekhar is passionate about education at the university level, as well as at the elementary and secondary levels. To this effect, over the years she has spearheaded a number of hands-on physical science programs for K-12 students and teachers to learn about force, motion, and energy. Some of those programs include Saturday Scientist, Exploring Physics, the Summer Teacher Institutes, and Physics First.
Chandrasekhar and Uma Venkateswaran, her graduate collaborator, designed and built a low-temperature pressure cell to conduct optical studies on semiconductor heterostructures. The device can apply pressures up to 1 million pounds per square inch, changing the energy levels so that the researchers can study the properties of these materials.
All of this background history is necessary in order to appreciate the important contributions Chandrasekhar has made to this field. That is, once people realized that these “bologna and cheese” heterostructures could be reliably constructed, a whole bunch of new questions arose. This is where Chandrasekhar’s research comes into play. “We don’t really ‘grow’ the devices…or even the materials,” she stipulates. “The work we do is on studying the properties of these devices: how to control them, what drives them, how far you can be off and still be within your range.”
“As an electron travels around, it keeps bumping into stuff,” Chandrasekhar offers as a simple explanation. “So the behavior of the electron gets defined not just by all the other stuff around it, but by the fact that it is bumping into the edges” of different materials. Quantum mechanics helps to explain the different kinds of behaviors that occur when dealing with very small scales.
Meera Chandrasekhar describes herself as “a condensed matter experimentalist,” that is, a physicist who studies a class of materials called condensed matter systems (formerly known as “solids”). Within this class are three types of materials: insulators, which do not allow electricity to flow; conductors, which do allow electricity to flow; and semiconductors, which “have conducting properties that are in between that of insulators and conductors.” Chandrasekhar has spent most of her research career seeking to understand the special properties of this “in-between” class of materials.