Name: Rod Cole
What do you teach? Why did you decide to teach it?
Well, I teach physics, and I actually got interested about the seventh grade. There was a brief stint when I wanted to be a forest ranger! The way I sort of got started in physics was because my aunt gave me a Christmas gift when I was in the seventh grade. It was a subscription to a book-of-the month club for children, and one of the first books I got was on the Manhattan Project, and they were describing nuclei and stuff and how big things were, and they said that if you take the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, which is a proton and you laid a quadrillion of them end to end they’d take up about a quarter of your fingernail and I said, ‘Wow! How do you measure something so small?’ Obviously, you don’t pull out a meter stick, so how did they determine that size? The seventh grade science teacher I had basically was clueless, but … basically when I got to college, I learned about the Rutherford experiments and how all these sizes were originally determined using the scattering of particles. So, it was just that quest, how do you measure something so small that got me interested in physics, and sort of held onto me.
What brought you to UC Davis?
A job! [Laughs] I went to college in the late sixties-early seventies at the University of Illinois, at Champagne-Urbana. That’s where I was an undergraduate. Then I wanted to go to a smaller school for graduate school, so my adviser sat me down with a big book with all of the physics departments in the United States that had graduate programs, so I just looked for people who were doing some things that I was interested in and settled on the University of Wyoming.
So I went to the University of Wyoming to get my Ph.D. When I got done with my Ph.D., there was sort of a real crush at the end because my physics advisor was leaving to spend a year in Germany, so I had to finish, so I didn’t have any place to really go. I grew up around Chicago, so I moved back to Chicago for a year and worked some odd jobs while I applied for something more meaningful. Davis was the first place that offered me a position, so I came here and it was a good fit and I’ve been here ever since.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching?
I really love physics, and physics is something that is very challenging for people to learn. It’s the excitement of being able to figure out ways to make it understandable to people and to teach them how math is not something to be feared because you have to take it. It’s really a very brilliant tool for exploring the universe.
Are you involved in any projects right now? How did you become involved with them?
I’m involved in the MERPS program, which is mentoring undergraduate students in physical sciences and mathematics and getting them involved in research. It began around 1990 when we began having meetings between various physical science and mathematical departments – that includes chemistry, geology, computer science, mathematics, physics and statistics. We were looking at what a poor job we were doing with students who were at risk of leaving the university in these disciplines who were not graduating, not going on to graduate school.
We put together a faculty mentoring program to involve students right away in research to try and get them plugged into the university and show them what research was available and what it is really about because it’s very different when you start doing research within a discipline than learning from books. The books are designed to try to develop skills that the students are going to need, but you don’t get a sense of what it’s really about.
Students are coming into the university wanting to major in say, math, and really having no idea what a mathematician does. We wanted to get that idea across, get them plugged into a supportive network that could help them get into graduate school, and teach them early on what graduate school is about, why you want to go to graduate school, and just develop the necessary skills. Just to get into graduate school you need references, and so you need some faculty that know you well so that you can get good letters of recommendation. This was all designed to address those problems, so I work quite a bit with students trying to get them involved in research, doing something for graduate school.
How about your own research?
My own research has evolved…. Originally, my dissertation project was involved in statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. I was looking at phase transitions, particularly first-order phase transitions. Say you’re trying to describe what happens when you add heat to water, and it changes its phase and goes to the vapor, or steam, – the gas state of water. It involved a lot of working with things on the microscopic level and seeing how things on the microscopic level produce things that we see at our level, – the macroscopic level – and so that was a very interesting project.
I always had this sort of love for electricity and magnetism, so in the mid-eighties – when computers started to become usable – I took computer programming classes…. When I was in college you punched out a bunch of cards that contained the lines to your program, and then you’d read those through a reader and come back the next day and pick up the output! It was a very painful way to develop code because you were always running into compiler problems or stupid things like that having to do with the end result you were trying to get, so I didn’t really deal with computers much until they became very interactive. Like you’ve got the fax systems – they were running an operating system called BMS, and then the PC and the Macintosh came along, and they became very powerful. You can have a computer sitting on your desk that is more powerful than a supercomputer they had back in the early nineties.
At that point it became very easy to put together what are called simulations. You use the theoretical laws that govern how things move and interact to try and piece together in the time domain, which is what you’re working in as opposed to the frequency domain. You’re looking at the time domain, how they actually move and interact with each other. I started working on taking accelerated charges and looking at how it is that they actually produce the electromagnetic fields.
So I’ve been working with undergraduates, trying to get them to learn what the basics are to put together a simulation, because you have to get graphics involved – computer graphics. You have to tie them to your mathematical models and do your numerical computations and set them up…. That’s something we don’t really teach in courses. There aren’t a whole lot of courses on how to put together simulations and a lot of physics majors and basic scientists that go to work in government labs like Lawrence Livermore labs end up working on these big, massive projects where they’re putting together these simulations. So it’s fun!
What advice would you give to students who are physics majors?
Well, to any student, find something you love. If you’re going to be doing it for the rest of you life, do something that makes you happy!