Adopt-a-Physicist with Josh Weber


Monday, December 14, 2015

Research Associate Josh WeberResearch Associate Josh Weber

MADISON—Recently, LOCI Research Associate and physicist Josh Weber, participated in Adopt-a-Physicist along with Waukesha North High School in Waukesha, WI and Sta. Catalina National High School in Candelaria, Quezon, Philippines. Adopt-a-Physicist aims to introduce high school physics students to the wide variety of careers open to people who study physics, like Josh.

Physicists and students participating in Adopt-a-Physicist interact for a three-week period. Discussion forums are open, and small groups of students within each class are encouraged to talk to their physicist about his or her career, educational background, most interesting projects, and anything else the students would like to know. Adopt-a-Physicist is run by Sigma Pi Sigma (ΣΠΣ), the physics honor society.

The following Q&A with the Sta. Catalina National High School classroom taught by Nino Crisolo, Department of Education is published with permission from the instructor and ΣΠΣ.

Student: As [a] physicist how do you see yourself from others who are also working in the different field of natural science?

Josh: . . . As a physicist working in the natural sciences, I find that you don't learn many facts in physics education. Biologists, by contrast, seem to know many things. Instead of teaching you many things, I feel that a physics education teaches you a few concepts, and then you learn how to apply those concepts in many different situations. A physics education may not teach you as many things, but I think it prepares you well to solve new challenges and to learn a wide variety of new things. I feel physics gives you a strong background in problem solving. An education in physics seems to be a solid foundation for many different careers. (Again, that's just my opinion, and I can't claim to speak for all physics or biology!) 

Student: . . .What is your philosophy by profession? Also is it necessary for a physicist to have a deep background in mathematics? Meaning is it more easier for a mathematician to become a physicist rather than a physicist to become a mathematician?

Josh: . . . As for the mathematics questions, I believe that it definitely helps for physicists to have strong backgrounds in math. You don’t have to start out with a strong background in math, although it can help. In my experience, you learn a lot about math as you study physics. Often learning the math in the context of physics helps the math ideas to make more sense (and sometimes to be more interesting, too). Your question about mathematicians and physicists is an interesting one. I think that a strong background in physics (especially certain subfields of theoretical physics) would help you become a mathematician. I assume that a background in mathematics would also help you to become a physicist. Again, though, it depends on the subfield of math that you are in. Both fields require good critical thinking and analytical skills. That’s a good question! I don’t know the answer!

Nino Crisolo, Department of Education: . . . If you are teaching or are going to teach Physics subject let say in high school, what would be your philosophy in teaching on this subject? Josh: . . . I’m still working on developing my teaching philosophy for physics. I don’t think you’re ever really done developing your teaching philosophy. You have to be willing to evaluate how things are going, and change how you are teaching to better serve the students’ needs. As you gain more experience, you adopt your teaching. One major part of my philosophy is getting students actively involved in doing physics. That could mean having them do problems in class, do experiments in class, or respond to questions. Class time is better spent when they are doing something rather than just sitting and listening or watching. With physics especially, I believe it’s hard to learn without doing. When possible, I like to have this active learning involve working together. Not only does this bring in a variety of diverse ideas, but it allows students to work on their communication skills and to solidify their understanding by explaining things to others. class:

Student: . . . If light is made up of photon and can be reflected how about EM waves? EM waves can be reflected too using a mirror but what makes this wave?

Josh: That's a good question to start things off . . . that gets at one of the aspects of physics that has always been confusing to me: particle-wave duality. Light is one type of electromagnetic (EM) wave, but it's also made up of particles. A photon is both a particle and a wave. This is part of what is known as the wave-particle duality of light. It's kind of hard to understand because it's so different than what we see in the world around us. At the same time, light is one continuous wave and a lot of individual particles (photons). These two aspects of light seem to be a contradiction, but experiments have shown both the wave nature of light and the particle nature of light. For example, the wave nature of light is shown by the double-slit interference experiment, and the particle nature of light is shown by the photoelectric effect.

Interestingly, other fundamental particles like electrons also show this wave-particle duality, too. As for your mirror question, here is one way to think about how mirrors work with EM waves. EM waves are electric and magnetic fields that are moving back and forth in a regular pattern. When these electric and magnetic fields hit a silver mirror, an electromagnetic force causes the electrons (which are charged particles) in the silver to move back and forth in a regular pattern along with the wave. It turns out that when you move charged particles, they themselves emit EM waves. Since the particles move in a regular pattern, the new wave moves in a regular pattern. These new waves are what we see as the reflected light. Whew! That was a long answer! Particle-wave duality is a tricky topic. Did I answer your question? It was a good one! I should add: Weird things like this (that don't quite seem to make sense at first) are part of why I really like physics!

Student: . . . Why did you [want] to become a physicist?

Josh: . . . I definitely didn't always want to be a physicist. I didn't know what a physicist was. As I mentioned in my profile, (after wanted to play professional baseball) I thought I wanted to teach math. I always liked math and science classes when I was in grade school, and in high school I really liked my math classes. I only decided to take a physics course in college at the last minute on the advice of my older brother. The professor I had for my first physics course was awesome, and I really enjoyed the class, even though I thought it was hard. I liked the course and the professor so much that I decided to take another physics class the next semester. I kept liking my physics courses, so I decided to major in physics. During one summer in college, I did an internship at a University laboratory. I thought doing science research was fun, so I decided to go to physics graduate school. Graduate school research was fun, so I stuck with physics!

Student: Thank you, Sir, for answering my question. I was like, "Oh I see, now I know." With this I'm thinking now of getting a degree in Physics when I go college. How is it? I mean is it hard to be in your shoes?

Josh: Another good question! I wish I could say that physics was always easy and fun for me, but that isn't true. Sometimes physics can be really challenging and frustrating. I think that's true with any job, though. For the most part, though, I do really enjoy physics. Although the challenge can be frustrating, it also can be fun! I really like the challenging aspects of the job, and I think the problem solving that I get to do is well worth the frustration. I like that I get to spend my time thinking about and solving new, tough problems. Also, I really like working with equipment and getting to work with my hands! (Although that can be frustrating, too, when things don't work!) Overall, I think doing physics research is a fun job, and I'm glad that I have the opportunity to do it.

Adopt-a-Physicist is a service provided by Sigma Pi Sigma (ΣΠΣ), the physics honor society. It is supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the American Physical Society Campaign for Physics.