Theoretical physicist works hard to ignite interest among intro students

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Tyler Spilhaus teaches intro to physics labs.

Professor Tyler Spilhaus talks to students about their project during a physics lab in the Natural Sciences Building. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The first evidence of a gravitational wave detected 100 years after Einstein imagined it-proof that space actually vibrates-drew standing-room only enthusiasts to two explanatory sessions this month at the UAA planetarium.

The two physics professors who organized the effort were surprised. One session might draw some interest, they thought, but two? An initial full house prompted the second session, with listeners still willing to stand for an hour and ponder science.

Tyler Spilhaus and Katherine Rawlins collaborated on the free offering, she because she'd worked at LIGO, scene of the cosmic news, and he because he's a theoretical physicist who's researched gravitational waves at UMass:Dartmouth. He earned his undergraduate and master's degrees in physics there, and published a paper with a favorite professor on how gravitational waves decay as they leave the event horizon of a black hole.

"I'm a theoretical physicist. I write about things you'll never see," he says with a quick grin.

Students work on a physics lab

Kyle Mayeaux, on the left, and Erik Dougherty work on an assignment during a physics lab.(Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Spilhaus arrived at UAA almost on a whim, right after finishing his second physics degree. "I Googled 'physics teaching jobs' and University of Alaska Anchorage was on the first page. I sent off my cover letter and a resume. Five minutes later, I got a call from Dr. Rawlins."

It was that simple. He really wanted teaching experience and UAA called first.

As it turns out, Spilhaus has amazing science genes in his family. His grandfather and great grandfather, sharing the name Athelstan Frederick Spilhaus (Sr. and Jr.) were both physicists. Both studied at MIT, but with interests in different areas.

0Student works on a physics lab

Amanda Roberts assembles equipment during a physics lab. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Tyler's grandfather studied geology and geophysics, and headed the American Geophysical Union for more than 35 years.

His great grandfather, whom he remembers from his boyhood, studied at the University of Capetown in the 1930s. He disliked Hitler's activities in Europe and chose doctoral studies in America, where his interests included fluids and aerodynamics.

While at MIT he invented the bathythermograph, a deep-sea thermometer that proved critically important during World War II in battling German U-boats. Temperature slows sound down. Spilhaus's instrument allowed the skipper of a battleship or a submarine to better estimate the accuracy of sonar readings.

The great grandfather created a science cartoon, called Our New Age, which he syndicated in more than 100 American newspapers from 1958 to 1973. He told interviewers, "I decided to [start writing the comic strip] right after Sputnik, when I was disturbed about kids knowing very little about science. Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education."

Our New Age cartoon, developed by Tyler Spilhaus' great grandfather

An example of "Our New Age," a comic Tyler Spilhaus' great-grandfather, also a physicist, developed after Sputnik. It was syndicated in 100 American newspapers.

The cartoons had impact. When President John F. Kennedy appointed Spilhaus to direct science exhibits at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, the two men met. Kennedy reportedly told Spilhaus, "The only science I ever learned was from reading your comic strip in the Boston Globe." This, from the man who a year earlier announced plans to put a man on the Moon.

Another example of the "Our New Age" comic.

I wondered if Tyler Spilhaus felt he had no choice but to become a physicist. No, he laughed. His parents are farmers and in the military. Personally, he snoozed through high school physics.

At UMass Dartmouth things changed. Originally, he planned to study computer science. "I thought that would be a practical field and allow me to do just about anything I wanted." Only he got bored. He says his own innate curiosity finally led him to physics.

Because physics is about how the world works? I asked. "Because physics is about how everything works," he said with emphasis.

He still credits two favorite Dartmouth professors, Gaurav Khanna and Jay Wang, for sparking his deepest interest. "It was the way they taught their subject, the enthusiasm they brought to it, that made me truly interested in learning."

Which is why Spilhaus has spent this academic year at UAA. He wants to teach as well as he's been taught. UAA is giving him plenty of practice, with five sections of introductory mechanical physics, two sections of physics 2, and a recitation or problem-solving section. He manages the physics labs and orders all the equipment, too.

He'll leave UAA after this semester, a combination of missing big cities and campus cutbacks. He's bound for more research and a doctorate at a top physics school. Becoming an excellent teacher remains a prime goal. He very much wants to do for UAA's physics newcomers just what Khanna and Wang did for him back at Dartmouth.

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Sunday, March 20, 2016 Alaska Dispatch News.

Creative Commons License "Theoretical physicist works hard to ignite interest among intro students" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
March Archive