Eclipse, collision and education: Physics professor leads program during exciting science phenomena

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Professor Andy Gavrin leads the IUPUI physics program as chairman while promoting physics education. Photo by Tim Brouk, IU Communications

Andy Gavrin wears many figurative hats over his impressive coiffure within IUPUI's School of Science.

Among them are chairman of the Department of Physics and influencer in physics education. 

So far this academic year, the physics education segment of his career has been boosted thanks to historic phenomena. First, the solar eclipse on Aug. 21 drew thousands to the University Library East Lawn. The School of Science and the Department of Physics were out in full force that afternoon, which happened to be the first day of classes. Then, the first direct observation of a neutron star collision was announced Oct. 16, thrilling his corner of the Science Building. 

"I heard about it and immediately had to go down the hall and talk to the first person I met, biophysicist Jing Liu," Gavrin recalled. "It's just an extraordinary thing.

We've believed neutron stars are colliding, and there are short gamma-ray bursts that have been observed for a long time. People thought they could be caused by neutron stars colliding, but they weren't sure. Then, all of a sudden, you get observations from multiple gravitational wave observatories, multiple gamma-ray observatories, optical observatories, radio telescopes, infrared, ultraviolet -- every possible part of the electromagnetic spectrum all at once.

"It was one of those things that doesn't happen every day in science. You live for those days." 

The collision shot out elements familiar to Earth: gold and platinum. The gravitational waves that showed us this collision were theorized by a theoretical physicist named Albert Einstein. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics went to researchers for their work on the waves that Einstein predicted 80 years prior.

Gavrin gave Inside IUPUI some insider insight on the world of science.

Q: How have students reacted to the collision and the eclipse this semester? 

A: Students enjoy hearing about the big phenomena. People love to see science enacted in real life. Sometimes learning science is a little dry. Sometimes people have a bad experience in science classes in middle school, high school or at the university. A lot of students are required to take it, and it's not always obvious where science fits into their lives.

With something like fundamental physics or astronomy, people might think, "When is this ever going to happen? When will I see something?" To have it happen in a big way, in a way people can get together and see how extraordinary an event is, that's a great opportunity.

Q: What are your thoughts on the total eclipse coming to Indianapolis on April 8, 2024?

A: I hope we can cancel classes that day and make the campus a viewing location for the community as well as for our students.

Q: How do you push physics education in 2017?

A: As a professor, I have multiple jobs. When I stand up in class, part of my job is to make the subject interesting. Another part of my job is to really get across the fundamental ideas students are going to need. Many of my students are engineering majors who will need to use the principles and skills they learn in physics as they move into their advanced courses.

Making it fun is great, and just making it educational is important. The real challenge is doing both and having students get the ideas and be able to do the detailed calculations but also see the beauty and excitement of it.

A lot of my work involves technology to do that. I use Top Hat software, which allows students to answer questions in class on their cellphones, tablets or laptops. I will give a bit of a presentation, and then I'll pose a question. Students discuss the question with others around them, come to a consensus and then vote. Then I reveal how well the class is doing. It's real-time feedback. Minute by minute, how are they doing? Are they getting the idea, or are they missing something? If they are missing it, I can keep going on that topic and have a little more discussion rather than just move on and not find out until I give an exam that students didn't understand an important point.

Q: You have also done research on magnetic materials. Tell us about that.

A: How magnets work internally is a fascinating and complex problem, and I attack that in various ways. One of the fundamental pieces is creating new materials. We create new materials, often by depositing them a few atoms at a time and slowly building up a structure that is tens, hundreds, thousands of atoms thick but with layers only a few atoms thick, or create composite materials in which clusters of one element are embedded into the matrix of another element -- again, with just tens or hundreds of atoms in size within those nanostructures. 

We attempt to create things with new properties that are useful. We create samples in which some fundamental behavior is easier to observe or study than it is in naturally occurring materials that have a lot of other stuff going on, such as impurities or other structures. By creating something new, we can highlight a fundamental behavior that we want to study. 

Q: How does your research impact real life?

A: Multilayered materials are one of the fundamental pieces of computer hard disks that many of us have in desktop and laptop machines. There are other structures that are now being used in solid-state drives that are beginning to supplant hard disks, but most of us are still working with this kind of equipment. 

It wasn't that long ago that an average person could only afford tens or hundreds of megabytes of hard-disk space. Now, terabytes of hard-disk space are normal and easily affordable. That improvement in technology comes directly from building nanostructure materials using techniques that were pioneered in physics labs in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s.