UR Students Present to American Astronomical Society

Three University of Richmond students who have done original research in astrophysics have presented their results at the recent 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

AAS 227

UR students Haonan Liu, Joseph George, and Evan Jones, along with Professor Ted Bunn, at the AAS meeting.

The American Astronomical Society January meeting brings together thousands of astronomers, astrophysicists, media, and members of the public. At this year’s meeting in Kissimmee, Florida, in January 2016 two UR students, juniors Joseph George and Evan Jones, presented posters, while senior Haonan Liu presented a talk.

Liu has worked with Professor Ted Bunn for several years on optimizing interferometers to explore the anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background. His talk was entitled “Fisher Matrix Optimization of Cosmic Microwave Background Interferometry.”

Jones has worked with Professor Jack Singal for several years on a few different projects. His poster dealt with his expoloration of a support vector machine learning algorithm to predict the redshifts of galaxies and was entitled “Shape Information for Photometric Redshifts with a Support Vector Machine Algorithm.”

George is a Computer Science major who has worked with Professor Singal as well. His poster was on the topic of new statistical routines for the analysis of large survey data sets and was entitled “Population Studies of Quasars in Infrared and X-Ray Light.”

A milestone for UR Physics

Check out the American Institute of Physics‘s list of undergraduate physics programs that graduate the most majors:


This is the first time we’ve made the list.

Everyone in the department has worked hard to build our program, but particular credit has to go to the two previous department chairs, Jerry Gilfoyle and Con Beausang.


Wait-lists for PHYS 131 and 132

Registration for Spring 2016 classes will begin soon. The physics department will be offering two sections of PHYS 131 and four sections of PHYS 132. As in the past, some seats in these courses will be reserved for students in each year. To be specific, the seating limits on each section will be

  • 6 students during senior registration,
  • 12 students during junior registration,
  • 18 students during sophomore registration,
  • 24 students during first-year registration.

The reason for this is that prospective physics majors need to be able to take these courses early, so we can’t let all the seats be taken by juniors and seniors.

This semester, for the first time, we will have formal wait-lists for these courses. If all the sections that fit your schedule are full when your registration time comes, you can sign up for the wait-list. Then, after first-year registration is complete, any available seats will be filled off the wait-lists.

The rest of this post contains details about the wait-list policies. At the very bottom, you will find links to sign up for the wait-lists (but note that you can’t sign up until your registration time has arrived).


PHYS 131-132 Wait-list policies

  1. A student may only sign up for the wait-list after that student’s registration time has begun.
  2. A student who is enrolled in one section of the course may not sign up for the wait-list for other sections.
  3. The student must provide name, email address, ID number, registration group (e.g., “junior scholar / athlete” or “sophomore”), and desired section(s) of the course.
  4. Students will be admitted off the wait-list beginning at the end of the registration period for first-year students.
  5. Students will be offered admission off the wait-list in the order they signed up. To be specific,
    • If any seats are available in any sections listed by the first student on the list, then that student will be offered a seat in one of those sections. If a student has listed multiple sections, and seats are available in more than one section, then the chair will choose which section to offer the student.
    • The same procedure will be applied to each student in order.
  6. When a student becomes eligible to be admitted off the wait-list, the chair of the physics department will notify him or her by email. The student will have 12 hours to accept this invitation by replying to the email. If the student does not reply within that time, he or she will be dropped from the wait-list, and the next eligible student will be admitted.

If you have any questions, ask Ted Bunn, the physics department chair.

Here’s where you go to sign up for the wait-lists for PHYS 131 and PHYS 132.

UR Society of Physics Students Receives Another Award

Another framed certificate has been added to the Richmond Society of Physics Students wall of fame in the physics department. It joins previous awards for being an outstanding chapter in 2013-14, 2012-13, and several previous academic years.


The new award is the 2014-15 Blake Lilly Prize, which “recognizes SPS chapters and individuals who make a genuine effort to positively influence the attitudes of school children and the general public about physics.” In addition to the certificate, the award included a bound copy of the famous Feynman Lectures. The outreach activities of the Society include the Physics Olympics.

Richmond students visit JLab

Faculty member Jerry Gilfoyle brought five students from Richmond to tour the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in Newport News, VA this summer. Dr. Gilfoyle does nuclear physics research research at JLab using one of the large particle detectors to detect the debris from collisions of high-energy electrons (from the one-mile-around accelerator) with atomic nuclei. The picture shows the students from left Kristen Gell, Peter Humby from the University of Surrey, Nate Watwood, Omair Alam, and Haonan Liu.  The group spent the day walking through tunnels, stepping over beam lines, and climbing to the top of the three-story high CLAS12 detector that is under construction.

Richmond students standing in the middle of the structural frame holding the CLAS12 detector. The large panels behind them are time-of-flight detectors making up one layer of the device.


Physics Olympics Goes to Africa

Last summer one of the University staff, Liz Malaugh, spent a month teaching at a school in Ghana. Facilities were limited so she used some of the labs from our Physics Olympics to teach the kids some physics. The Physics Olympic labs are portable, affordable, and accessible to young kids. They don’t require a lot of high-tech sensors or data acquisition equipment to teach some basic science. In the picture below some of the students are working on building an aluminum-foil ‘boat’ for That Sinking Feeling. The boat is placed in a tub of water and weights are added until it sinks. The design that can hold the most weight wins. Notice the cool hats the students are wearing. There are more pictures and descriptions of the trip here.

Physics Olympics Goes to Africa

Students at the Grace Masak School in Ghana work on a Physics Olympics lab.


U of R Physics Receives Outstanding SPS Chapter Award!

At the University of Richmond physics department, we have long believed that in addition to the outstanding teaching and opportunities for undergraduate research, one of our major strengths is the sense of community and dedication to each other that our students have as part of the departmental culture.  This was recently demonstrated when our department’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) was selected as an “outstanding” chapter by the national SPS.

The “outstanding” designation is a notable accomplishment – less than 10% of the SPS chapters are so honored, an overall average of around one per state.  As stated in the award letter

“The selection as an outstanding SPS chapter is based on an assessment of the depth and breadth of SPS activities conducted by your chapter presnted in your report in areas such as physics research, public science outreach, physics tutoring programs, hosting and representation at physics meetings, providing social interaction for chapter members, and participation in SPS regional and national level programs.”

The award certificate

The research, social, and outreach activities of the chapter were discussed in a report to the national SPS prepared by chapter President Alexis Achey, along with Vice President Molly Luginbohl, Treasurer JP Wheeler, Secretary Kristen Gell, and Historian Liz Bisaha.  Among the research activities noted were five students who received fellowships to travel to present their research at the Division of Nuclear Physics fall meeting, and two students who traveled to Paris to work with collaborators over the summer.  Social highlights included a stargazing night, liquid nitrogen ice cream party, movie nights, a “deconstruction night” where old equipment was disassembled, recruitment posters, and custom T-shirts.  The outreach activities were centered around physics students’ pivotal role in the Richmond Physics Olympics, a competition for high school students.

U of R physics students prepare liquid nitrogen ice cream

This year is not the first time Richmond SPS has been so-honored, having previously received the outstanding chapter award in the 20056-2006 and 2006-2007 school years.

What is the Higgs Boson All About?

Recently someone asked me if I could summarize for them them in one sentence what the Higgs Boson is and why it is significant.  I said no.  It can’t be done adequately in one sentence.  But here is an attempt to explain it in a few paragraphs:

Particles and fields

In our contemporary understanding of particle physics – the reality of nature on the smallest scales where tiny elementary particles are important – particles are not really little points but packets of energy with an amorphous shape and ambiguous location.  Each different kind of particle, such as electrons, quarks, and photons, has an associated “field” extending throughout space, and the value of the field at any location corresponds roughly to the likelihood of having a particle of that kind with a certain momentum at that point.

Different fields interact with each other in specific ways.  For example the electron field can interact with the photon field, and that manifests as the electromagnetic interaction.  In order for two electrons to interact with each other in order to give the familiar repulsion we all learn about in freshman physics, what we actually have is the electron field at one point interacting with the photon field which then interacts with the electron field at another point.  We say that the photon is the carrier for the electromagnetic force.

Different fields can exchange energy through interactions, so that one type of field gives its energy to another at a certain place.  This can result, if enough energy is transferred, in one field going down in value in one place and another field going up, so much so that the first kind particle in a certain location disappears and the second kind of particle appears.


Higgs field and mass

One of the fields thought to exist is the Higgs field.  The Higgs field was hypothesized in order to give rise to the property that we observe as mass.  What having mass really means fundamentally is that a particle has energy associated with just existing, rather than only with moving.  Particles without mass travel at the speed of light and all the energy they have is due to their motion, but those with mass go slower and have additional energy that is independent of their motion.  The interaction of another field with the Higgs field gives the first field the property of having mass – that is having energy not related to its motion but simply due to its presence and interaction with the Higgs field.  The strength of the interaction with the Higgs field is what determines the amount of mass.  The Higgs field can even interact with itself, giving itself mass.

So, putting it all together, if the Higgs field actually exists, then when a field has a high enough energy in a certain location – that is there is very likely a particle there – and it interacts with the Higgs field, there should sometimes be enough energy transferred to the Higgs field to create a Higgs particle there.  We call the particle arising from the Higgs field the Higgs Boson.  For years particle physicists were eager to see evidence of a Higgs Boson actually existing because it would confirm the theory of the Higgs field and how particles get the property of mass.


Making particles

This is where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes in.  To create a Higgs Boson by having another particle interact with the Higgs Field and transfer its energy requires a lot of energy for the incoming particle.  In order to get those energies, supercolliders such as the LHC, which is located at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, accelerate particles to almost the speed of light and smash them together.  In the smash a bunch of new particles are created from the energy of the collision, via the fields interacting as described above, and fly out in all directions.  Many of the particles flying out are detected by instrumentation, for instance they may interact with materials such as silicon to create an electrical signal.  Some particles pass right through materials and can’t be detected directly.  But by tracking the motion of as many of the particles as possible from a collision, the presence of those which can’t be tracked can be inferred, since energy and momentum have to be conserved.  The existence of a Higgs Boson created in a collision would show up as one of these ‘missing’ particles.  Sure enough, at the LHC there have been a number of collision events where the missing particle has just the right properties – such as no charge and large mass – to be the Higgs Boson.  Particle physicists are now confident that they have created Higgs Bosons in collisions, and therefore the Higgs field and its interactions are real, and that is how all other particles have the property that we perceive as mass.

Artist’s conception of a particle collision in the LHC producing many new particles from the energy of the collision. Some of the new particles are observed as they pass through detectors.

The Higgs Boson is the final particle predicted by the so-called “standard model” of particle physics to be shown to exist.  For this reason, and because the interaction with the Higgs field gives rise to mass, physicists have been excited to see evidence of the Higgs boson being created.  Still, our understanding of fundamental particles and their interactions is far from complete.  80% of the mass of the Universe, which is in the form of dark matter, is not made from particles in the standard model.  We also do not have a successful theory that explains how gravity itself can be carried by a field.  So while confirming the standard model by confirming the creation of Higgs bosons at the LHC is a triumph for particle physics, it is not the end of the story.

Welcome Students! (Info on first physics courses for this fall)

Special welcome to new UR students in the class of 2017!  Also, welcome back to all of our returning students!  For those of you interested in a first physics course, here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know.

Prospective physics majors and engineers typically start with Physics 131 in the fall and 132 in the spring.  (Physics 131 is mostly about mechanics; Physics 132 is mostly electricity and magnetism.)  This fall there are four sections of physics 131, and one section of physics 132 available.    Physics 131 requires Calc. 1 (Math 211) as a prerequisite, or co-requisite (taken at the same time).  Physics 132 requires Calc. 2 (Math 212) as a pre- or co-requisite.  It’s very important for physics majors and engineers to finish 131 and 132 during the first year, so they can take physics 301 in fall of sophomore year.  Physics 301 is only offered in the fall, and is a prerequisite for all of our upper level courses; missing 301 can mean basically falling a full year behind, making it very difficult (though not impossible) to complete the major.

Pre-med students and other science majors also take Physics 131 and 132, and these courses fulfill the science requirement for non-science majors, so even if you’re not sure what you’re majoring in, keep these courses in mind.

Students with strong high school physics backgrounds can skip Physics 131 and start right away with Physics 132.  In exceptional cases, very strong students can even skip Physics 132 and go straight into our sophomore level courses.  Usually, this is determined by AP tests; receiving actual course credit on your transcript for physics 131 or 132 is determined by official university policy, requiring a 4 or 5 on the Physics C Mechanics or E&M AP test, respectively.  However, the question of what course you should take is really separate from the question of AP credit; if you can demonstrate that you know the physics, we are happy to let you skip a course, whether or not you have taken a particular AP exam.  (This especially applies to international students who don’t have easy access to AP exams.)   If you have a strong physics background but didn’t take the right AP exam, email us or talk to one of the physics faculty when you arrive.  In general, we want you in the physics course that’s right for you, and check marks on official pieces of paper aren’t a big deal to us.

For students who aren’t planning to major in a science, we offer Physics 125, a survey of conceptual physics.  This course fulfills the general-education science requirement, but it does not fulfill prerequisites for more advanced science courses.

Finally, I’ll point out that there’s one physics-related first-year seminar this fall:

The Five (or Ten) Best (Physics) Experiments Ever!: This course will examine the people and stories behind some of the key experiments in physics.  We will focus on experiments which have radically altered our views of the world or universe around us or which have radically altered our civilization by the technology they enabled. Inspired by and loosely based on the text “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments” by George Johnson the course will explore great physics experiments from history as well as some of the more amazing experiments underway.

Like all first-year seminars, this course is open to all first-year students, not just science majors. But I thought I’d mention it, because someone who’s read this far down into this post might be particularly interested in a topic like this.

University of Richmond Observatory enters the 21st century

with a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

We’ll be posting announcements of public observing nights in both places, so if you want to know when things are going on at the telescope, follow us on Twitter and/or sign up to get notifications on Facebook. (If I’m not mistaken, to do the latter you want to go to the Facebook page and check the “Get Notifications” line under the Like button.)

Tell your friends!


Professor Matt Trawick awarded NSF grant

Richmond physics professor Matt Trawick has just been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation in support of his ongoing research in developing new atomic force microscopy techniques.  The three-year, $140,201 grant will allow Trawick and his students to develop new techniques to correct common imaging artifacts, making nanometer-scale surface measurements more accurate.

Students, professor publish nanotechnology paper

Nathan Follin, lead author

Three University of Richmond students and their professor have recently published an article in the journal Review of Scientific InstrumentsTheir article describes a new technique they invented for correcting certain kinds of imaging and measurement errors that are common in scanning probe microscopy.  The students, Nathan Follin ’13, Keefer Taylor ’13, and Chris Musalo ’12, all worked with physics professor Matt Trawick to both develop the new technique and test it on Richmond’s state-of-the-art atomic force microscope.  They expect their technique will find wide-scale use in nanotechnology, where accurate measurement and imaging of nanometer-scale features is routinely required.

Dr. Con Beausang Wins Grant Renewal

This fall Richmond physics professor Con Beausang had his Department of Energy grant renewed for a further three years. This award, funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration funds Dr. Beausang’s non-classified research into nuclear stewardship science. In addition to providing travel and equipment funding the award provides salary support for a postdoctoral fellow and graduate student as well as summer stipends for Richmond undergraduates to enable them to participate in experiments and study nuclear physics under Dr. Beausang’s guidance.

Richmond Students Present Their Nuclear Physics Research

Two University of Richmond physics majors, Liam Murray and Keegan Sherman, will be presenting posters about their research from last summer at the fall meeting of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society. The meeting will be held in Newport Beach, CA and their work will be part of the Conference Experience for Undergraduates (CEU) held each year as this meeting to highlight undergraduate contributions to nuclear physics. Liam and Keegan both received funding for the trip from CEU and from the University. They worked last summer with Jerry Gilfoyle whose research is focused on the underlying quark and gluon structure of atomic nuclei and how the color force that binds quarks creates the world of nuclear physics. Here are links to Liam’s and Keegan’s abstracts describing their work.

Grant renewal for Dr. Jerry Gilfoyle

This spring, one of the Richmond Physics faculty, Jerry Gilfoyle had his US Department of Energy research grant renewed. Dr. Gilfoyle studies nuclear physics at Jefferson Lab, a large national accelerator lab in Newport News, VA. Dr. Gilfoyle’s work is focused on understanding how the strong force binds quarks together in protons, neutrons, and atomic nuclei. The grant will provide funds for summer stipends for Richmond undergraduates to study nuclear physics under Dr. Gilfoyle’s guidance. A supplement to the original proposal was also approved and will provide funding for a masters student to study with Dr. Gilfoyle in 2013 as part of a joint program between the University of Richmond and the University of Surrey in the UK.

Summer Research Students visit Jefferson Lab

A group of five Richmond physics students went on a tour of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab or JLab) in Newport News, VA in July. The tour was led by one of the Richmond Physics faculty, Jerry Gilfoyle, whose research is focused on the program in Hall B at JLab. Three of the Richmond students (Keegan Sherman, Liam Murray, and Spencer Bialt) are doing nuclear physics this summer with Dr. Gilfoyle. Jocelyn Xue and Rob Lee also went along. They are doing cosmology research this summer with Ted Bunn.

JLab is built around a mile-long electron accelerator (CEBAF) that can accelerate electrons up to energies of 6 GeV. The beam is then directed into one of four end stations. The group started in Hall B which holds one of the large particle detectors called CLAS. CLAS is a large, spherical, magnetic spectrometer about 10 m in diameter. It surrounds the target so nearly all of the debris from a collision with the electron beam is detected. The goal of the science at JLab is to uncover the secrets of the strong force that binds quarks together to form protons, neutrons, and, in turn, atomic nuclei. That force is described by a theory, quantum chromodynamics (QCD), that has been highly successful at higher energies and should work at JLab energies, but until now the theory has not been solved. With JLab we hope to challenge theory with new data on nucleon and nuclear structure.

The group started in Hall B. The first picture below shows them standing on the forward carriage that holds some of the CLAS components. The main part of the CLAS can be seen to the right.

Liam, Keegan, Rob, Jocelyn, and Spencer on the forward carriage in Hall B.

The second picture below shows the group now at the point where the beam enters the detector. Normally a vacuum pipe carrying the beam would go through the middle of the picture and enter the round opening behind them. In a real experiment, that opening would be filled by a target.

The group stands near the point where the electron beam enters CLAS and strikes the target.

The last shot below shows them later in the accelerator tunnel. The JLab electron beam is accelerated by superconducting cavities that have a rapidly changing electric field and form a racetrack shape about a mile around. Individual electrons injected into the machine can make up to five laps before being extracted and sent into one of the end stations. The shot below shows one of the large cryomodules at lower left that hold the cavities. A string of  cryomodules form a long chain that extends down the tunnel behind the group.

The group in the accelerator tunnel. One of the cryomodules that contain the accelerating cavities operating at less than 3 K can be seen at lower left.

Physics courses for entering students

We in the UR physics department are looking forward to welcoming the new members of the Class of 2016 in the fall. Here’s some information you might find helpful as you think about registering for fall courses.

If anything’s not clear, or if you have any questions about which course is for you, ask us!

Physics majors typically start with Physics 131 in the fall and either 132 or 134 in the spring.  There are four sections of physics 131 available this fall.  Physics 131 is mostly about mechanics but has some other topics as well.  It requires either that you’ve had some calculus or that you take Calc. 1 at the same time.

Pre-med students and students in other science majors also take Physics 131, and the course fulfills the science requirement for non-science majors, so even if you’re not sure what you’re majoring in, keep this course in mind.

Students with strong high school physics backgrounds can skip Physics 131 and start right away with Physics 132.  There is one section of this course offered in the fall. University policy says that you need a 4 or 5 on the Physics C Mechanics, or departmental permission, to skip Physics 131.  If you have a strong physics background but didn’t take the right AP exam, email us or talk to one of the physics faculty when you arrive in town to see if you should be in 132.  (This applies especially to international students, who aren’t part of the US AP system.)

If you think you might want to major in physics (even if you’re not sure), and you’re eligible to skip 131, we strongly urge you to sign up for Physics 132 in the fall.  Finishing the introductory physics sequence early will give you a lot more scheduling flexibility in future semesters (and remember that even if you end up majoring in another science, you may still need to take this course).

Students with very strong physics backgrounds (a 4 or a 5 on the Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism AP exam) are eligible to skip both semesters of the introductory sequence.  If you’re in that category, and you think you might want to study physics, the best courses for you are Physics 205 (Modern Physics) and/or Physics 301 (Mathematical Methods).  Once again, if you didn’t take the appropriate AP exam but think you might have the right background for this option, ask us.

For students who aren’t planning to major in a science, we offer Physics 125, a survey of conceptual physics.  This course fulfills the general-education science requirement, but it does not fulfill prerequisites for more advanced science courses.

Finally, I’ll point out that there’s one physics-related first-year seminar this fall:

Space is Big. This course will examine three occasions in the history of Western thought when the conception of the size of the Universe underwent large expansions: 1) The transition from an Earth-centered to Sun-centered view of the Universe, which led to an enormous increase in estimates of distances to stars, and hence in the scale of the known Universe; 2) The gradual understanding, in the early 20th century, of an expanding Universe filled with billions of galaxies; and 3) Contemporary ideas of the multiverse, according to which our observed environment is only a tiny fraction of all that exists. The most extreme and controversial versions of the multiverse hypothesis propose that the very laws of physics vary throughout the Universe, and that our observed patch may be quite atypical. In the course of examining the amount of space in the Universe, we will examine ideas about the nature of space, which also underwent major shifts during each of these periods.

Like all first-year seminars, this course is open to all first-year students, not just science majors. But I thought I’d mention it, because someone who’s read this far down into this post might be particularly interested in a topic like this.