A Tesla Coil and Tea: Life in the Physics Basement
Written by Katie Kortepeter
This semester, I joined three of my physics-major friends on a club trip to see the MSU cyclotron, which is a world-class research facility. As an English and French major, the physics lingo was all Greek to me, but Cody Jessup, Josh Ramette, and Michael Tripepi’s enthusiasm for science was contagious, and the trip gave me a deeper respect for, and curiosity about, what they love. Over tea in the physics lounge, which is in the basement of the science building, I asked them more about their experience with physics at Hillsdale.
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Why did you choose Hillsdale when looking at physics programs?
Cody: When I visited, I could tell that everyone here respected each other and respected themselves. You don’t even have to worry about someone taking your stuff when you leave it sitting out, because of the honor code.
Josh: This physics program has a great reputation of sending its students to good graduate programs. Also, the best way to learn physics is by doing it collaboratively, because you have to bounce ideas off one another with lots of different thought experiments. As an undergrad, research experience is very important. During the summers we do research programs at bigger universities. So not only do we get to learn closely with peers and profs during the school year; during the summers, we’re still getting big university research experience, so we’re not missing out in any way.
Michael: Hillsdale has great summer science camps for high schoolers. I attended all three of them and just fell in love with the college.
What research are you working on right now?
Cody: I’m doing pulsar research with Dr. Dolch. We’re observing pulsars, which are neutron stars that rotate really fast and produce pulsing radio signals, and now we’re jumping in to actually analyzing the data.
Josh: After freshman year I worked on atmospheric physics with Dr. Hosmer as a summer research program. I’ve also been able to do an independent study on atomic force microscopy, and this last summer I was down at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory site in Louisiana working on gravitational wave detection. I’ve continued to wrap up work this semester, and we’re hoping to submit the results from that for publication.
Michael: This past summer I was researching the photoelectric effect at another university. This is the process by which a material emits electrons when light hits it. We were researching how the composition of surfaces effect the amount of electrons that come off the surface.
How does physics fit into the liberal arts?
Cody: There’s beauty in physics, in studying the natural world. Most people may not see that right away because all they see is mathematical equations, but those equations describe something very physical in nature. There’s beauty in that, because you want to understand God and nature, which is a part of God’s mind. An amazing physical law and all that it describes can be boiled down to a little math equation that you can see and read. Wow.
Josh: Physics is actually the oldest liberal art by inclusion of astronomy. Physics is the liberal art I can apply for its own sake to figure out what’s going on in the universe. The intellectual pursuit of finding symmetries and patterns in nature and expressing them in theories is so fascinating and worthwhile. I feel drawn to this regardless of any external benefit.
Michael: Physics is the study of the natural world, and ultimately the purpose of the liberal arts is to understand each of the different facets of human knowledge. One of the advantages of taking physics at a liberal arts institution is that you really get to see physics in context of all the other branches, which doesn’t degrade the understanding of physics. It enhances it. Physics is not an overarching thing that superimposes itself onto the whole of life, but it’s something that can infuse itself through all the other liberal arts and in turn be infused by other disciplines.
Any stories about your time at Hillsdale you’d like to share?
Michael: As a testament to the size of Hillsdale’s department, it’s always a blast to learn quantum mechanics with three students. The best part was, the syllabus stated that the homework deadlines may be altered if the entire class agrees. Getting two other people to agree with you is pretty easy! The physics club also goes on fun trips at least twice a semester to the University of Michigan and attends physics lectures. Hillsdale is very centrally located, which provides the perfect opportunity to take part in public events nearby. We’ve gone to the Henry Ford museum, to the cyclotron at MSU, and to a general relativity conference at Northwestern.
Cody: We were the only undergrads at the conference! Everyone else there were physicists with PhDs or grad students.
Josh: Our experience in the physics lounge has been cool. Michael and I have moved in here and basically live here. Cody lives right out in the hall and pops in for tea. It’s been very convenient and conducive to a good atmosphere to have our lounge so close to the labs and the professors. Also, I’ve really enjoyed having a Tesla coil down here, which is basically an electrical device that shoots lightning bolts.
What are your plans after Hillsdale?
Cody: For now, grad school and research.
Josh: After grad school, I’d like to be a physics professor who does a mix of teaching and research.
Michael: I want to go into research and development for industry in the private sector.
Do you have any advice for prospective physics students?
Cody: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re looking for a good physics program, Hillsdale is a tight-knit community where you really get to know your professors.
Josh: Take the time to play with the physics in your head and let it became part of yourself rather than something you just memorize. That will take you the farthest.
Michael: Physics is teaching you to develop an intuitive insight into the world. It’s going to be difficult and strenuous at times, but if it seems difficult at first, don’t give up. Remember that physics is teaching you to think about nature differently and reconstruct your intuition about everything.
Hailing from Indianapolis, Katie Kortepeter, ’17, is an English and French major. She frequently swing dances, speed reads Tolstoy, and practices her Chinese as a bubble tea waitress.