Summertime, and the livin' is easy

Ideas more or less related to teaching and learning physics at Luther College.

and the livin' is easy.

Fish are jumpin',
and the cotton is high..."

"Summertime" from "Porgy & Bess," by George Gershwin

The Tsukuba Express rapid train.

5 p.m., Japan Standard Time, Narita, Japan-I have arrived at the Tokyo/Narita International Airport, and begin the journey that has become second nature. Go through Customs, get cash at the Citibank ATM, purchase a ticket on the Keisei Skyliner, which takes me from Narita into the center city in Tokyo. Grab a quick coffee (canned, iced, of course) at the vending machine and wait at the train platform. I'll next transfer at Nippori station in the Tokyo Subway to Akihibara station, where I'll catch the Tsukuba Express rapid train to Tsukuba, where I go for meetings of my research collaboration. By 8 p.m., I will have arrived at KEK, the National High Energy Research Laboratory of Japan (see aerial photo below, and their website here)  A quick bite to eat at Genki Sushi, a frequent retreat of mine for kaiten sushi, and I collapse into bed at the KEK dormitories at around 10 p.m. A sound sleep to ward off the effects of jet lag follows.

Aerial image of KEK, the National High Energy Research Laboratory of Japan


I make this journey twice yearly, for the purpose of presenting and listening to results of data analysis, and planning for our next experiment (set to begin data taking in 2016). The face-to-face contact for far-flung researchers in an international collaboration like Belle is essential for successful integration of the efforts of the few hundred physicists who are members of the group. The Belle colleagues I work most closely with hail from not only the US, but from Germany, Russia, Japan and India – and the diversity of international connections I have been able to make on the Belle experiment has added a special ingredient to what is a highly intellectually satisfying endeavor.

The Belle detector at KEK.

Our experiment is devoted to the study of matter at the smallest distance scales – studying fundamental constituents (quarks and leptons) and the forces between them in order to understand the composition and characteristics of both everyday and more exotic forms of matter. Studies of the interactions between quarks using particle accelerators like that at KEK (and at Cornell University where I did postdoctoral work before coming to Luther, and at Fermilab where I did my Ph.D. research) have been the focus of my scholarship since I was a graduate student. I've been fortunate, thanks to funding support of the National Science Foundation, to be able to continue to be an active researcher in this field since I've been at Luther College, and to support Luther students to participate with me in this exciting research as well. 

It is this latter subject that I'd like particularly to highlight in this Ideas and Connections post. Because of our size and the character of our institution as a college of the liberal arts and sciences, connections forged between students and faculty are often quite tight. At Luther, we come to know our students well, and direct involvement in research projects, even as it is unusual for undergraduate students in the broader landscape of higher education, is quite common for our students. Many have the opportunity not just with me, and not only with faculty in the sciences, but with faculty across the disciplines represented at Luther College to engage in work that stretches them intellectually and involves them as genuine partners in scholarly research and creative activities.

Summer is naturally the most active time for student/faculty collaborative projects, and this summer is fairly typical, with more than forty students working on campus with faculty. Many of these students will continue on these projects in the fall, using their summer research as the foundation for further work during the academic year, which for the seniors among them will likely culminate in the Senior Research Project, a capstone experience required of all students at Luther. The fields of study represented this particular summer include physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, mathematics, English literature, anthropology, communications, religion, economics, political science and environmental studies. The breadth of disciplines represented makes for a vibrant environment for cross-disciplinary communication as students and faculty alike share the results of their work in formal and informal conversation.  

A high degree of importance is placed on student involvement in collaborative research projects at Luther, and rightly so. The one-on-one collaboration with scholars on current problems in their fields is, in my view, one of the best ways to pass on to students a spirit of active inquiry and to help them acquire skills that are readily translatable to their future callings. Many of the experiences gained by students working closely with a faculty member on his or her research cannot be replicated in any other manner. At Luther, our highest aim is to prepare students well for the world that they will face in the future, and give them what they need to excel in their chosen path, to serve for the common good. Teaching is central to this task – and the research my students and I are doing, and the work others around campus are engaged in this summer, lies at the heart of our role as teachers and mentors. Research at Luther College is in no way in competition with teaching – but, rather, is woven together with it in order to provide our students with an engaging, vigorous education that will serve them well and enable them to excel in their chosen fields.  

Now – it's time to head back down to the lab and check in with my students to see what they've discovered today.   

Todd Pedlar headshot

Todd Pedlar is associate professor of physics at Luther College. In addition to his teaching in physics, Pedlar has taught both in Paideia I and Paideia II. His research field is elementary particle physics, and he is a member of the Belle and Belle II Collaborations, which operate experiments at KEK, the national high energy physics laboratory of Japan. He studies the spectroscopy of heavy quarkonium systems, and is engaged in the design of advanced detector systems for the upcoming Belle II experiment. His published work includes several recent articles in Physical Review Letters, and a major review article titled "Recent Results in Bottomonium," published in October in the 2013 volume of Annual Reviews of Nuclear and Particle Science. Read more of his reflections on teaching, academia and the liberal arts at his blog, Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax.

{ Return to Physics Faculty Blog for more posts. }

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