April 1, 2008

Physics Department Acquires Grant for State-of-the-Art Equipment

Single-photon counting lab will be used for student-faculty research in physics, chemistry, chemical engineering, and computer science

Michael Stark, assistant professor of physics, has secured a $45,000 grant from the McCutcheon Foundation to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for a single-photon counting lab devoted to the hands-on study of quantum mechanics. Andrew Kortyna, assistant professor of physics, assisted Stark in acquiring the grant.

According to Stark, the lab is expected to be solely devoted to student instruction and research and most of the equipment will be items that students will encounter in research laboratories in industry or graduate school. Students from both the intermediate and advanced laboratory programs will work with the equipment as well as students from numerous other majors, including chemistry, chemical engineering, and computer science, where knowledge of quantum mechanics is invaluable.

“We are seeing increased enrollments of students majoring in other fields like chemistry and engineering in our intermediate quantum physics course,” says Stark. “The new experiments performed on this equipment will, therefore, enable us to strengthen the quantum mechanics education for all of these students. I’m very excited about this effort.”

Lafayette’s focus on close student-faculty interaction has made it a national leader in undergraduate research. Some of the College’s research programs include honors theses, independent study, and the distinctive EXCEL Scholars program. Many of the hundreds of students who participate in these programs each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Stark compares attempting to study quantum mechanics without this sophisticated equipment to “looking at a gravel pile to understand howindividual rocks behave.”

“Even though quantum mechanics is the correct theory to explain the physical world, students rarely encounter its effects directly,” explains Stark. “It is easy for students to use common equipment to learn about classical Newtonian physics because you can experiment on normal-sized objects, like balls. But, since quantum mechanics is the physics of very small objects like atoms, when students do experiments to study quantum mechanics, they are studying the behavior of billions of objects together.

“The experiments that we will be doing in the new lab use a non-linear process in a crystal called beta barium borate (BBO) to produce pairs of photons,” he continues. “Photons are the individual particles of light and their behavior is governed by quantum mechanics. Students will be able to study this quantum mechanical behavior by studying the interaction of these pairs of photons.”

Stark explains that several other new experiments are being developed on campus as a result of other equipment upgrades from the McCutcheon Foundation, including a $35,000 spectrometer that the foundation helped the College purchase in 2005.

  • Physics
  • Exceptional Faculty
  • Undergraduate Research

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