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Dr. Megan Bruck Syal ’07 on planetary defense and liberal arts

My classmate Megan Bruck Syal works on how to defend the Earth from incoming planetary debris. In this new video, she does a backyard experiment about how the porosity of the asteroid would affect the way a projectile impacts it.

I’ve set the video to start at about the 8:30 mark, where she talks about majoring in astrophysics and mathematics in college, and also emphasizes the importance of all of the other courses — literature, history philosophy — that are an essential part of a liberal arts education.


Evidence: Small College and Science

In a recent EphBlog post, David challenged the conclusion of Eph physicist Chad Orzel ’93 that “Small Colleges are Great for Science Students.” In the post, he asked:

As always, you should think like a statistician. Take 100 high school seniors interested in getting a science Ph.D. Randomly select 50 to attend places like Union/Williams and 50 to attend research universities. Which group will do better in graduate school admissions? Probably (contrary opinions welcome!) the ones who attend research universities…

Sounds terrific. But what if we don’t want to wait half a decade or more for the results? (Just because we can measure the speed of light doesn’t mean every conceivable experiment is a feasible one!).

Let’s look to numbers we do have. Orzel made an effort to do so, highlighting that 1%-1.5% of the attendees at the “research conference in my field” are from Williams. (Question for Orzel: are you submitting those Eph alumni photos you take to the alumni review? Or to EphBlog? We’d love to see them).

According to the Williams College Department of Physics home page, Williams averages about 17 physics and astrophysics majors each year. According to the American Physical Society, the number of undergraduate physics majors in the U.S. since 1980 has averaged somewhere around 5,000 per year. A crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Ephs are significantly overrepresented at Orzel’s conferences, rather than underrepresented, as David would suppose.

The American Physical Society also gives out an annual award to the two top undergraduate physics students in the United States: the LeRoy Apker Award. In the last two decades, it’s been given to just over 40 students nationwide, 42 in total (in two years, three students received awards). 4 of those 42 were at Williams, including current Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret ’02. Harvard? Only two, and physics is a *strong* department at Harvard in terms of the commitment of faculty to teaching undergraduates (the physics faculty there repeatedly win the College’s award for undergraduate teaching).

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Now, the Apker Award doesn’t necessarily speak to the strength of liberal arts students vs. research university students, because the Apker Award rules say:

Two awards may be presented each year, one to a student from a Ph. D. granting institution and one to a student from a non-Ph. D. granting institution.

But it does highlight the advantage of attending a non research university: access to this separate, smaller, pool of candidates for this award. Your odds are better at Williams.

There are other statistics available, that would be great to quantify on a broader scale. For example, the 2013-14 Report of Science at Williams College states that Williams hits well above its weight in National Science Foundation fellowships:

Williams has ranked first among predominantly undergraduate institutions in students receiving NSF pre-doctoral fellowships, averaging about seven per year over the past ten years.

That’s out of approximately 200 math and science majors. In 2015, Harvard had 37 NSF fellowships (data here), and a perusal of Harvard’s data on fields of concentration in its Undergraduate Handbook suggests that’s from a pool of about 1450 science undergraduates. Odds of an NSF Fellowship as a science major at Williams: 30:1. Odds at Harvard: 40:1. Advantage: Williams.


Doctor of Rocket Science

Congratulations to Joe Shoer ’06 on successfully defending his dissertation. I like this:

The funniest thing about this to me is that I know that the research I’ve been working on isn’t done. There are more investigations to pursue, more refinements to write into the code, more variations to try in simulation, and more experimental verification to perform. Research never stops. But at some point, we grad students have to decide, with our advisers, when we have made a sufficient contribution and should wrap up our work into a complete dissertation. Still, it doesn’t quite feel like I’m “done,” because I know that the research has much further to go!


Music as a tool in science education

A Williams sweatshirt makes an appearance about 1:55 into this 2-minute rap video.

Perhaps that’s a lame excuse for posting this here. Yes, I’m trying to boost the YouTube hit count of the video, of which I am the star. There is a slightly less egocentric angle to this as well, though, which is that I and others are interested in educational uses of science songs and are compiling relevant info — including a database of 3600+ songs — at Perhaps other instructor/teacher/professor types will find it useful.

As a further attempt at a Williams tie-in, I could add that I wrote one of my very first science songs, “Sphingo,” as a means of avoiding work on my senior thesis (on sphingolipid metabolism).

OK, enough of this. Thanks for humoring me.


Eph Bookshelf: Fingerprints of God

Below is the first in a series of book reviews of works by Ephs, or otherwise of interest to the Ephblog community. As a quick perusal of the “Life of the Mind” section of any Alumni Review will reveal, Eph authors are (not surprisingly) sufficiently prolific that no single reader could hope to keep abreast of more than a fraction of the new releases. So don’t let me crowd out the field — write your own review. Even if it’s just a couple of sentences in “Speak Up!”, we’ll all be better off for it.

Fingerprints of God, Barbara Bradley Hagerty ’81.

Cover of "Fingerprints of God"

The subtitle of this riveting book is “The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” but the detached and impersonal phrasing doesn’t quite do justice to the part-memoir, part-serial feature contained between the covers. Noted Eph journalist Bradley Hagerty, best known as a Washington-based correspondent for National Public Radio, embarks on a journey to understand her own spiritual experiences and those of others in the context of the perceived disconnect between modern scientific supremacy and personal conviction.

Read more


Williams Syndrome

To learn more about this disorder, please visit the following links:

Nature: Children who form no racial stereotypes found


NYTimes: The Gregarious Brain

(The previous post has been removed with the author’s permission)


Building Transformers in space out of Legos connected by tractor beams

Joseph Shoer ’06 explains his research.


iLog: The Physics of Musical Instruments

View more videos from Williams College here.

Thanks to David Kane for the link.



Congratulations to Kelly MacGregor ’93 on receiving tenure at Macalester College. From her bio:

I am a geomorphologist with a specialty in glacial processes. My current research focuses on understanding the role of glaciers in shaping alpine landscapes. I use tools such as GPS, stream gauging stations, and good old-fashioned shovels to understand how glaciers behave over daily to annual timescales, and how they affect the rocky landscapes they occupy. I also use numerical models to simulate their role in creating the fantastic mountainous landscapes we see today. In addition to my work on glaciers, I am interested in the effects of dams on sediment and water transport in river systems.


The physics of Avatar

Joseph Shoer ’06 explains.


The Physics of Space Battles

Incredible article by aerospace engineer Joe Shoer ’06 in Gizmodo:

We have the fighter-plane engagements of Star Wars, the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek, the Newtonian planes of Battlestar Galactica, the staggeringly furious energy exchanges of the combat wasps in Peter Hamilton’s books, and the use of antimatter rocket engines themselves as weapons in other sci-fi. But suppose we get out there, go terraform Mars, and the Martian colonists actually revolt. Or suppose we encounter hostile aliens. How would space combat actually go?

Continue reading here.

(h/t Daniel Klein ’06)


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