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Physics Department Celebrates 100th Anniversary
03.20.14 |
Lebanon Valley College is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the physics program this year. On Saturday, April 12, the department will hold a celebration to commemorate this special anniversary. The celebration will include the induction of students into Sigma Pi Sigma (Physics Honorary Society), a buffet dinner, and presentations by physics faculty on the history of the department. A special highlight will be a presentation and conversation with Professor Jacob Rhodes, who served as chair of the department from 1957 to 1985. There will also be an open microphone for alumni to provide their firsthand knowledge of the history of the department as well as to reminisce about their experiences at LVC. We hope you will join us for this special occasion. Please RSVP to Barb West at west@lvc.edu.

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Dr. Jacob L. Rhodes ’43, professor emeritus of physics (pictured at right in an edition of Quittapahilla), recently returned to campus for an interview about his 28 years as chair and professor of the LVC Physics Department. He also shared some of his research on the history of physics at the College in preparation for the 100th anniversary of physics as an independent academic department.

LVC students could take a two-part physics course—the only physics course offered—beginning in the fifth year of the College’s existence according to the 1870–1871 College Catalogue. It was not until almost 30 years later that students were offered a second option in physics (1897) and a full-time professor was hired to teach both physics and chemistry (1900–1901).

Despite these limited course offerings, the College’s eminence in the sciences was already well-known. For example, David Albert Kreider, a member of the Class of 1892, had been a longtime instructor, then professor, of physics at Yale University by the turn of the century.

Appeals for fundraising—specifically for physics equipment—also began prior to the end of the 19th century as the importance of studying physics increased. By the 1900–1901 academic year, a physics course was required of all seniors pursuing the Classical Course toward a bachelor of arts degree.

Though several faculty members would hold the combined professor of chemistry and physics title through the next decade, it was not until 100 years ago (1913–1914) that a faculty member was dedicated solely to physics. Samuel O. Grimm, only recently graduated from LVC with the Class of 1912, assumed the title of instructor of physics in 1913 but quickly rose to professor of physics by the 1914–1915 academic year. “Soggy,” as he was affectionately known, would teach physics full-time while simultaneously serving administrative roles and teaching mathematics for the next four-plus decades until his retirement in 1957. He continued as a part-time member of the physics staff until the early 1980s.

Grimm began an LVC physics tradition that has seen only five professors serve as department chair during the past 100 years. He served as chair of the department until 1957 when Dr. Jacob L. Rhodes ’43 returned to his alma mater and began a 28-year tenure as chair and professor of physics. Dr. Barry Hurst (1985–1993, 2002-2011), Dr. Michael Day (1993–2002), and the current chair, Dr. Scott Walck (2011– present), are the only others to hold the title.

Rhodes recounts that before he arrived in 1957 there had been about 20 physics graduates since 1923, the year that LVC first began requiring students to declare their major and minor areas of concentration. One of the most famous was Dr. W.R. Kiehl ’25, who became assistant director of research at Corning Laboratories. Dr. Grimm’s four sons attended LVC and pursued successful careers in physics and engineering: Henry H. Grimm ’35, Robert S. Grimm ’40, Samuel O. Grimm Jr. ’41, and Kenneth Richard Grimm ’50.

Rhodes did well enough on the exams, including physics, to receive a $50 tuition scholarship for each of four years. He also received a state scholarship for $100 and so was able to enroll at LVC in September of 1939. “Physics was not offered as a first-year science course at the time so I took biology in my freshman year and waited until my sophomore year to take my first physics class. There were about 25–30 students in that first physics class because it was required of all science majors,” said Rhodes. “There were only two students majoring in physics in my class. However, by the time we got to the junior and senior level physics courses, the class enrollments were 5–10 students because many chemistry majors completed minors in physics.”

After graduating with degrees in mathematics and physics in 1943 and intending to teach secondary school math and science, Rhodes was interviewed for a position at Johns Hopkins University in weapons research, sponsored by the U. S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, a position he held until 1946 when he began graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1952, Rhodes accepted appointment to chair the physics department at Roanoke College in Virginia. He resumed his studies at Penn in 1956 after being offered a research fellowship, completing his Ph.D. in physics in 1958. “Dr. Frederic Miller, LVC’s president at the time, visited me in Philadelphia and asked if I would be interested in teaching physics and serving as chair because Soggy was retiring,” said Rhodes. In another of life’s coincidences, President Miller had been Rhodes’ history teacher when he was a student at Lebanon High School.

Before 1957, all three science departments were located in the north end of the Administration Building—biology on the 3rd floor, physics on the 2nd floor, and chemistry on the 1st floor. In 1956, the Chemistry Department moved to the first floor of the building now known as Derickson Hall A. The Physics Department was scheduled to move down from the 2nd floor to the 1 st floor, which had been occupied by the Chemistry Department. Miller was so impressed by Rhodes that he asked his protégé to draw up the plans for the College’s renovation of the new physics labs before he had returned to LVC. “I drew up the plans before I even taught here,” said Rhodes. “The floors of the existing chemistry labs had been eaten through by chemicals so that it was time for a renovation.”

Rhodes finally arrived at LVC in the fall of 1957 as the only full-time physics professor. It wasn’t until 1959 that the department added a second full-time faculty member when Prof. Bob O’Donnell arrived. O’Donnell would teach until 1987. Rhodes was able to add a third faculty member in 1961 through a Research Corporation grant and the department remained a trio until he retired in 1985. Unfortunately, when Rhodes retired, his position was not filled due to a decline in college enrollment, but he continued to teach as a part-time professor until 1992.

Dr. Barry Hurst joined the department in 1982 and, after Dr. Michael Day arrived in 1987, physics remained a two-member team for more than a decade successfully maintaining, and even improving the program. With increases in enrollment, Dr. Scott Walck, current department chair, began teaching at LVC in 1999 returning physics to a three-member department and providing added strength and vigor. Fourteen years later, Hurst, Day, and Walck remain a team.

Rhodes, Hurst, Day, and Walck plan to celebrate the anniversary with alumni, students, and friends on April 12, 2014. They take great pride in the success of the program’s graduates over the years, citing numerous examples of a hundred years of physics alumni who went on to be great high school teachers, scientists, engineers, researchers, and professors themselves.

Rhodes recounts that before he arrived in 1957 there had been about 20 physics graduates since 1923, the year that LVC first began requiring students to declare their major and minor areas of concentration. Two of the most famous were Dr. David Rank ’28, who became chair of the physics department at Penn State University, and Dr. W.R. Kiehl ’25, who became assistant director of research at Corning Laboratories. Dr. Grimm’s four sons attended LVC and pursued successful careers in physics and engineering: Henry H. Grimm ’35, Robert S. Grimm ’40, Samuel O. Grimm Jr. ’41, and Kenneth Richard Grimm ’50.

The popularity of physics as a major grew during the 30-year tenures of Rhodes and O’Donnell with an estimated 124 students graduating during that period, including Rhodes’ son, William ’87. Almost a fifth of these students, 25, went on to earn doctoral degrees. Like their predecessor Grimm, Rhodes and O’Donnell helped produce many successful alumni.

Some of Rhodes’ fondest memories include delivering the 1967 Commencement Address and moving into the Garber Science Center in 1983. About Garber, Rhodes said “It was a great feeling to go through the steps of planning, moving, and finally enjoying the science center. We can be quite proud of our science facilities.” Rhodes summed up his nearly 30 years on the faculty in the 1985 Quittapahilla yearbook when he said, “…due to the genuine value of the people I’ve worked with, teaching here has been an experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything.”

The following is a partial list of LVC graduates during Rhodes’ chairmanship of the Physics Department. For those not listed, please contact Tom Hanrahan at hanrahan@lvc.edu to be added.

Dr. Elizabeth Bains ’64, Ph.D., University of Tennessee—aerospace engineer at the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) where she helped create the software for the computer simulators used to train America’s astronauts.

Dr. Russell Hertzog ’64, Ph.D., Brown University—owner of eight U.S. and 11 international patents, with three additional patents pending; author of 65 journal and professional publications in the field of Nuclear and Environmental Science Measurements.

Dr. George Plitnik ’63, Ph.D., Brigham Young University—professor of physics at Frostburg State University who has taught courses ranging from The Science of Harry Potter to Modern Physics and Asian Metaphysics. He has also taught in Ecuador, France, Israel, Italy, and Japan.

Dr. Edward Nickoloff ’65, D.Sci., Johns Hopkins University—professor of environmental health sciences with a focus on radiation physics at Columbia University for more than 30 years; past chair of the American College of Radiology, past president of the Radiological and Medical Physics Society of New York, and past secretary of the American Board of Medical Physics.

Dr. Barry Lutz ’65, Ph.D., Princeton University—retired professor and chair of the department of physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University.

Dr. Philip E. Thompson ’68, Ph.D., University of Delaware—researcher with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., author or co-author of more than 130 journal articles, and holder of four U.S. patents.

Jim Nelson ’60, M.S., Clarkson University, M.Ed., Temple University—high school physics teacher who was one of the first winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for Pennsylvania; former president of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Thomas Bross ’69, M.S., Purdue University—recently retired teacher and science department chair at Moravian Academy for 38 years; one of the first 17 winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for Pennsylvania.


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