The Physicists

To the Moon

Lars Monia ’15 

After only one year at Rhodes, Lars Monia was given the keys to the moonbuggy, so to speak. The Great Moonbuggy Race is a NASA project for high school and college students who build simulated lunar rovers. It’s a challenge, says NASA, “to inspire them in Engineering and explore Engineering opportunities and possibilities.”

Monia was asked to recruit other students, put together a team to manage, and was given a prospective budget by Physics chair Brent Hoffmeister. 

“Hosting a team for the first time was pretty challenging,” says Monia. “I had to teach everyone how to do the engineering programs and how the design process works and what the project even was—what in the world is a moonbuggy?”

He appreciates the help he received from Glen Davis, the manager of the Physics shop, saying, “there is no way we would have gotten this done without him.” The team, named Rookie of the Year in the 2012 Great Moonbuggy Race, is out to take top honors this spring.

Monia, who has known he wanted to be an engineer since the fourth grade, came to Rhodes with a two-year drafting certificate acquired while in high school in Cape Girardeau, MO. He also came with the idea of entering a dual-degree program in engineering with Washington University, though he’s reconsidered and is now looking at an opportunity with the U.S. Navy in its nuclear submarine officer program, with graduate school to follow.

He works very closely with Hoffmeister and Michael Sheard, professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, who, he says, “has faith in me.” Both men have given him the opportunity and room to run with his ideas and have become role models for his ultimate goal.

In addition to being an engineer, Monia says, “My real dream is to be a professor. I’ve always wanted to teach and that’s the aspect I take on with anything I do. If I’m going to lead a project, I like to teach other people how to do it and teach the team how to work together … I have more fun teaching than doing anything else.”

With a prospective double major in Physics and Math, he’s jumped into his college academics with classes in Physics and Calculus. As a future teacher, however, he sees the value in a well-rounded education from Rhodes and has taken piano with plans to take art classes later on.

“I like to create,” Monia says. “I like to play music and do art and build moonbuggies, but at the end of the day I’d rather teach somebody else how to do the same things.”

Staying Connected

Charles Robertson Jr. ’65

For Charles Robertson, a Rhodes education began not when he walked on campus for the first time as a freshman, but when his parents did as students. Thanks to Charles William Robertson Sr. ’29 and Lola Ellis Robertson ’33 being scientists themselves, Charles Jr. may have been looking at a preordained career.

“I had some interest in Engineering, but by the end of my senior year in high school I was pretty much hooked on Physics,” Robertson says. “My father, though a biologist, had a significant interest in the physical sciences and encouraged my interest in Physics.”

Once on campus, Robertson was under the watchful eye of professor Jack Taylor ’44, whom he credits for the good, solid department, and Professor Fritz Stauffer, who “was a significant player in the careers of all the graduates in my, and other, classes. He had a very complex life, and could draw on those experiences in guiding and advising students.”

During Robertson’s college years, Physics occupied the basement of Kennedy Hall, the place where the major came alive for him. “For me, the big value in the Physics Department was the stuff we had to experiment with,” he says. “I did a number of experiments on my own, some of which were beyond the usual, it seems. I cannot imagine taking Physics and doing only the formalized laboratory experiments and not going beyond my own. It was the ‘going beyond’ that made me what I am today, I believe.”

That “going beyond” propelled him to graduate school at Florida State University, where he was able to do a lot of instrument design work, the same kind with which he’s involved to this day.

Robertson, a founder of NanoDrop Technologies, sold the company to Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2007. Under his leadership, NanoDrop pioneered microvolume instrumentation techniques that allow scientists to quickly and easily quantify and assess purity of small volume liquid samples such as solutions of proteins and nucleic acids. Not one to sit idle, though, he explains, “I’m supposed to be retired, but as I often put it, I’ve flunked retirement for the third time.” He has recently gone to work with another instrumentation company.

A Rhodes trustee, Robertson has more than kept up with the sciences at Rhodes. In honor of one of his mentors, in 2005 he and his wife, Patricia, both members of the Benefactors Circle, established the Jack H. Taylor Fellowship in Physics. In addition, there is the Dr. Charles W. Robertson Jr. Endowment for Student Research and Engagement in Physics and a state-of-the-art Zeiss Confocal Microscope System he provided the Biology Department. He stays in contact with science faculty, always dropping by to talk shop when he’s on campus. Grateful for his untiring support, in 2008, the college awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal.

“It was very good for me to be pushed into the liberal arts studies; if I hadn’t been, I would have hung out in the world of science and engineering and shunned the liberal arts,” he says. “I think the breadth of the whole of a Rhodes experience is very valuable as one moves through life and career.”

Opening Up the World

Harry Swinney ’61
Sid Richardson Foundation Regents Chair
The University of Texas at Austin

Harry Swinney heard about Rhodes College—then Southwestern—from several people, including the family doctor, James Gladney ’38, in his Presbyterian church in Homer, LA.

“I asked my parents if I could visit Southwestern and they drove me there for a two-day visit in the spring of 1955,” Swinney recalls.

He never considered any other option and enrolled with plans to obtain two bachelor’s degrees in five years in the 3-2 plan, with three years at Rhodes followed by two at Georgia Tech. In his freshman year, however, he took a Physics class from professor Jack Taylor ’44 and “became excited about the subject.” It was a class that would turn his plans, and life, around. In honor of Taylor, Swinney in 2000 established the Jack H. Taylor Scholarship at Rhodes for students majoring in the physical and biological sciences.

Swinney went on to get his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1968. His first faculty appointment was at New York University. He then moved to the City College of New York, where he remained till 1978, when he accepted a position at the University of Texas at Austin, where he currently holds the Sid Richardson Foundation Regents Chair for the Department of Physics.

With accolades and accomplishments almost too numerous to mention, Swinney is a noted authority on nonlinear dynamics, instabilities, pattern formation, chaos, and phase transitions. He was the founding director of the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics at Texas in 1985 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

It’s a compelling career that began with a senior honors project in a former coal bin in the basement of Kennedy Hall, “which was nice and dark, good for optical work even though it was a bit dirty.”

“I constructed an experiment to study the spectra of thin exploding wires,” he says. “I often worked late hours in the night … I had hoped to achieve wire temperatures of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but to my disappointment, the maximum temperature measured was only 10,000 degrees.”

His experience at Rhodes also introduced him to outreach activities which, he says, continue to excite him. He co-directs an annual two-week UNESCO-sponsored “Hands-On Research Schools” for young career scientists from developing countries.

“Philosophy, History and English literature courses at Southwestern opened up a world to me that I would not have known if I had gone to ‘Big State U’ where I would have undoubtedly spent the minimal time on courses outside of Math and Physics,” Swinney says. “At Southwestern I had friends from diverse fields instead of from only Math and Physics. The most direct effect of my Southwestern experience, aside from learning how to do research, has been that it taught me how to write a story. When I began writing scientific papers as a graduate student, I soon appreciated that my Southwestern education gave me a great advantage over most Physics grad students.”

Reaching for the Heights

Brent Hoffmeister
Chair, Department of Physics

Research teams in Geneva, Switzerland, recently provided proof of the elusive Higgs Boson particle, making the kind of news that gets physicists, and future physicists, excited. Closer to home, Rhodes Physics professor and department chair Brent Hoffmeister is excited about newer courses being offered, including Nuclear Physics, Engineering Physics, Medical Physics, and Fluid Dynamics. This semester, a course on Accelerator Physics, the sort of science that gave the world the Higgs Boson, is being offered for the first time.

Passing along his passion for the sciences is paramount in Hoffmeister’s teaching. “Personally, I like how teaching and scientific research have fused together to become the same sort of thing for me at Rhodes,” he says. “I really enjoy involving students in my research, and I think it is an important experience for the students too. A great way to learn about science is to function as a scientist.”

Hoffmeister did his undergraduate work at Wabash College in Indiana, and received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Washington University in St. Louis. A part of the Rhodes family since 1996, he cites Physics professor emeritus Jack Taylor ’44 as an inspiration, not only for himself, but for the department as a whole. “He had a huge impact,” says Hoffmeister. “Jack has an incredible passion for Physics and for Rhodes. He created some truly engaging out-of-the-classroom opportunities for students that our Physics alumni still excitedly speak about 40 or 50 years later. Jack inspired me to seek similar experiences for our Physics majors.”

Taylor took Physics students and faculty, including college president and physicist Peyton Rhodes, on a total solar eclipse expedition to Alaska in 1963, a tradition professors Bob MacQueen ’60 and Jack Streete ’60 continued, although to Hawaii, in 1991. MacQueen and Streete also involved students in a total solar eclipse experiment out of Panama City, Panama, in 1998. This time the experiments were conducted from a C130 aircraft specially modified for observing the eclipse. Through Taylor, the college began in the early 1970s a long and productive connection with the High Altitude Observatory, the solar physics research branch of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.

Hoffmeister likewise has reached for the heights. In 2006 and 2008, he helped supervise two student groups’ experiments in NASA’s Microgravity University, a program that enables undergraduates to perform microgravity experiments aboard NASA’s DC-9 aircraft, the “Weightless Wonder,” at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Spring 2012 saw a team of Rhodes Physics students in NASA’s Great Moonbuggy Race in Huntsville, AL. The competition is open to students from around the world who build their own buggies and propel them over a simulated lunar terrain.

Another “out-of-the-classroom” opportunity, called Memphysics, is a course Physics faculty at Rhodes designed to provide students the chance to engage in scientific education outreach to the Memphis community. “This course is unique because it lets the students become the teachers,” Hoffmeister says.

Communicating scientific research and findings to the broader community is an important skill and one that is stressed by the Physics faculty. To that end, in addition to the outreach programs, there are internships and fellowships both on and off campus. “We also encourage our students to present their research at scientific meetings and to help faculty prepare papers for publication in scientific journals,” says Hoffmeister.

“I think we do a good job of engaging students in Physics while maintaining a balanced approach to their overall education,” Hoffmeister says. “Preparation for careers in science and engineering can be very technical and focused. The liberal arts curriculum at Rhodes provides our students an important breadth of learning.”