Physics and Astronomy
Department Chair:
Stephen FitzGerald

Administrative Assistant:
Diane Doman

Department Email:

Phone: (440) 775-8330
Fax: (440) 775-6379

Wright Laboratory of Physics
110 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH, 44074

Physics and Astronomy Lecture Series

Physics and Astronomy Lecture Series



17 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  R. Sooryakumar, Department of Physics, The Ohio State University
Title:  Magnetic Micro-shuttles: Bioengineering at the cellular level
Abstract:  One of the major challenges in nanoscience, and the advancement of nanotechnology in general, is the development of precision tools for the manipulation and transport of nanoparticles and biological entities with directed forces. The difficulty of such manipulation becomes even more pronounced in a native fluid environment when stochastic Brownian motion disrupts targeted activities.
We have developed new approaches based on reprogrammable magnetic signatures patterned on a surface, to create remotely-controllable microscopic shuttles. Requiring only five tiny electromagnets, a game controller and the power equivalent to a 60W light bulb, tunable femto- to pico-Newton range forces guide, assemble and manipulate biological cells and micro-organisms in a fluid.
The physics underlying these joystick- and voice-activated approaches, that have been successfully implemented for fundamental nanoscience, bioengineering and medicine, will be discussed as we move towards realizing new intra-cellular probes within living cells.
Location:  Wright 201


29 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speakers:  Kate Becker, OC '01, Editor, The Nature of Reality, NOVA, and David Ehrenstein, OC '88, Editor, APS Physics Focus
Title:  Explaining Science to Non-Experts:  Two Physics Alumni Discuss Their Experiences
Abstract:  The exciting stories of scientific research must be communicated to those who fund the work -- the public.  As such, and for compelling intellectual reasons as well, it is imperative to also bring science to other scientists who are non-specialists in areas outside their research expertise.  Kate Becker ('01) and David Ehrenstein ('88) will discuss the pleasures and challenges of a career in science communication from two different perspectives.  Kate has worked for WGBH in Boston and at NOVA for many years and has been involved in sharing science with the public.  David Ehrenstein was the founding editor of Physical Review Focus, a web publication of the American Physical Society (APS) that existed for almost fourteen years before its content became part of Physics (also an APS web publication) in 2011.  Join them for a discussion of what they have learned along their professional world-lines.
Location:  Wright 201


12 (Thursday) 12:30 pm

Title:  The Making of the Chandra X-ray Observatory: Science, Technology, NASA, and the Advance of a New Branch of Astrophysics
Abstract:  Contemporary understanding of the Universe depends on measurements throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.  While many advances can be made from the ground, X-ray astronomy shares with parts of infrared and gamma-ray astronomy the added complexity arising from the absolute need to observe from above the atmosphere, which brings in all the technical challenges of space operations and the budgetary, political, and administrative challenges of access to space.  

We'll take a quick tour through the history of this process, with emphasis on the interaction of the science needs, the technology, the NASA planning process—and the science rewards that come from ultimate success—taking as our example the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the flagship of its field.  If time permits, we'll take a (speculative) look at what may be most needed in a future mission, how technology development may meet those needs, and the prospects for realizing our (ambitious) plans.
Location:  Wright 201

12 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Title:  Imaging Black Hole and Neutron Star Binaries
Abstract:  X-ray binaries consisting of a normal star orbiting a compact object owe their prominence to one of the most efficient energy release mechanisms known:  accretion onto a compact object.  The energy produced through accretion is released over essentially the entire electromagnetic spectrum, with each part of the spectrum revealing information, often time-variable, characteristic of particular segments of the system.  Our observational knowledge of accretion comes largely from the important but limited tools of spectroscopy and timing; the necessary angular resolution required to resolve images of the system is orders of magnitude away from being available.  This is where tomography, the technique that we advance and exploit, enters:  we can invert the information encoded in the shapes of spectral lines to yield what is very close to an image and gives us much of the insight that we are accustomed to receiving from images.  This provides unique information in the disk structure of systems that contain black holes and neutron stars.  Dr. Vrtilek will present results from observations obtained with the 6.5m Magellan telescopes in Chile, the 10.2m Keck II telescope on Hawaii, and Hubble.
Location:  Wright 201

17 (Tuesday) 4:45 pm

Speaker:  Kip S. Thorne, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology
Title:  Gravitational Waves and Numerical Relativity:  Probing the Warped Side of the Universe
Abstract:  TBA
Location:  Wright 201

17 (Tuesday) 8:00 pm

David L. Anderson Lecture

Speaker:  Kip S. Thorne, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology
Title:  A Physicist in Hollywood:  The Genesis, Science, and Art of Interstellar
Abstract:  After a half-century career as a professor of theoretical physics, Kip Thorne has embarked on a new, second career: making science fiction movies steeped in physics and astrophysics.  He coauthored the Treatment from which sprang Christopher Nolan's blockbuster, Interstellar, and he was executive producer and science advisor for the film.
In this talk he will describe his Interstellar experiences collaborating with artists and filmmakers. He will also describe some of the rich science in the movie: black holes, wormholes, warped time and warped space, a fifth dimension in which our universe might be embedded, gravitational anomalies, the tesseract, and laws of quantum gravity.
Location:  Dye Lecture Hall, SCTR A162


3 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Hugh Churchill, OC '06, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics, University of Arkansas
Title:  Building Electronic Devices With Atomically Thin Materials
Abstract:  Two-dimensional crystals are materials only one to a few atoms thick.  Graphene, a one-atom thick membrane of carbon, was the first atomically thin material isolated when it was peeled from graphite over 10 years ago.  The techniques used to isolate graphene have now been generalized to other materials so that the complete toolbox of properties -- metals, insulators, and semiconductors -- required for many electronic and optical devices is now available all with atomically thin materials.

These materials can be picked up and stacked together to make a wide variety of devices composed entirely of atomically thin, transparent, and flexible materials.

In this talk, Professor Churchill will present an overview of these developments and describe some contributions, including the demonstration of a photovoltaic device and light-emitting diode made from a three-atom thick sheet of WSe2.  Professor Churchill will also discuss some plans to explore the unusual properties of these materials in the new lab he is setting up at the University of Arkansas.
Location:  Wright 201


11 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Title:  A Case Study in the Science and Engineering of Energy Storage Materials and Devices (Or, How Did An Oberlin Physics Major End Up Running A Battery Plant?)
Abstract: This talk will explore recent progress towards realizing a new battery chemistry to address stationary energy storage applications.  An overview of the required attributes of such a device will be presented, followed by a survey of possible solutions.  A description of a novel aqueous electrolyte asymmetric hybrid battery that was developed at Carnegie Mellon and has since been commercialized will then be offered.  Results ranging from preliminary lab work through data from full-scale manufactured and deployed systems will be discussed.  Insights from an Oberlin alum to current students interested in going into an applied field will also be communicated.
Location:  Craig Lecture Hall (Science Center N292)

25 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Christoph Marx, Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics, Oberlin College
Title:  What's the cage size of an electron?
Abstract:  The quantum Hall effect captures how the electrons of a crystal respond to an external magnetic field. Depending on the properties of the material, the magnetic field may enhance or reduce the movability of electrons, thus making the crystal behave more like a metal or an insulator.

To describe this phenomenon mathematically, we will introduce quasi-periodic Schrödinger operators: infinite band matrices whose elements are generated by an irrational rotation on the circle. Insulator-like behavior amounts to exponentially decaying eigenvectors, representing electrons ``trapped'' in some finite region of the crystal. The goal of this talk will be to derive bounds on the ``cage-size'' (localization length) of such trapped electrons. We will thereby be able to predict metal- or insulator-like behavior of the crystal.

The results presented in this colloquium are joint work with two former students, Laura Shou and Jake Wellens. The talk will be of expository nature, and only assumes knowledge of calculus and some linear algebra.
Location:  Wright 201


10 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Patrick Simen, Assistant Professor, Neuroscience Department, Oberlin College
Title:  Interval timing and decision making with an opponent Poisson diffusion model
Abstract: Diffusion models explain patterns of human choice probabilities and response times in perceptual decision tasks (e.g., tasks in which a person decides which of two objects is heavier, or which of two sounds is louder). In diffusion models of human behavior, a random quantity representing "evidence" builds up over time in a person's brain until a boundary is reached, yielding a decision. Recently, my colleagues and I have applied diffusion models to a different task: interval timing. Despite major differences between these task types, human response time distributions in both are typically time scale invariant -- their standard deviations divided by their means are constant, even as the means differ across conditions. To understand how diffusion could explain time scale invariance, we analyzed diffusion processes that emerge when excitatory and inhibitory Poisson "spikes" (representing action potentials in the brain) are accumulated over time. Assuming that spike rates are proportional to evidence strength (in decision making) or to clock speed (in timing) leads to the prediction of time scale invariant response times. Most predictions held up, suggesting that human decision making and timing may derive from a common process of diffusion in the brain.
Location:  Wright 201

31 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Laura DeGroot, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Denison University
Title:  Galaxy Morphology Near and Far
Abstract:  Galaxy morphology, represented by the distribution of star light, gas and dust, has long been studied through various methods. One of the most notable studies was by Edwin Hubble, who established the Hubble Tuning Fork diagram based on visual classifications of galaxy type. With advancements in technology, the study of galaxy morphology has transitioned into a quantitative approach leading to a better understanding of how the light is distributed in galaxies. In this talk, I will present how galaxy morphology is determined today, along with how studying morphological parameters of galaxies in the local and distant Universe can lead to a better understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.
Location:  Wright 201


20 (Wednesday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Peter Elgee, Senior Honors Student, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Oberlin College
Title:  Progress Towards Laser Cooling an Atomic Beam of Lithium
Abstract: TBA
Location:  Wright 201

21 (Thursday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  H. Perry Hatchfield, Senior Honors Student, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Oberlin College
Title:  Interferometric Weighing of Mass Filaments Using Gravitational Femtolensing
Abstract:  TBA
Location:  Wright 201

27 (Wednesday) 4:35 pm

Speaker:  Eric Rappeport, Senior Honors Student, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Oberlin College
Title:  Infrared Spectroscopy of Molecular Hydrogen in HKUST-1
Abstract:  TBA
Location:  Wright 201

Department of Physics and Astronomy Lecture Series speakers from past years.