Admitting humanity in this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics

One-half of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics went to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for their discovery of 51 Pegasi B – the first planet observed to orbit a sun-like star other than our own. While the work marked a turning point in our understanding of the Universe, more than 4,000 such extrasolar planets have now been discovered, I think that some honest comments about a common experience in science made by Dr. Queloz deserve some attention as well.

The discovery of 51 Pegasi B was during Dr. Queloz’s Ph.D. work, Dr. Mayor was his advisor. At the time, 1992, the only planet outside of our solar system that had been found was around a pulsar: the rapidly spinning ember of a dead large star. The wobble caused by the planet in the otherwise regular radiation emissions of the pulsar made it comparatively easy to detect. However, the probability of life as we know it on such a planet is exceptionally low. One common attitude in the community at that time, according to Dr. Fischer of Yale, was that “Maybe most stars don’t form with planets and our solar system is unusual and life is incredibly rare.”

It was pretty clear I had no hope

Dr. Queloz describing beginning his Ph.D. work which ultimately won the 2019 Nobel Physics Prize

Thus, while starting a Ph.D. to search for extrasolar planets, Dr. Queloz was not expecting to find any, “It was pretty clear, I had no hope,” he said to the New York Times. Part of this hopelessness was rooted in the expectations of the time that any planets whose effects would be large enough to detect would orbit at such a distance that many years would be required to detect them. For example, Jupiter’s impact on our star has a period of over 11 years.

However, I know that these feelings of hopelessness are actually a quite common expectation of many students at the beginning of their Ph.D.’s independent of the particular field of physics. I know I had them. Here you are, joining this community of brilliant, and exceptionally hard working people, and you think to yourself, “what are the odds that I will find something that these other people, who have been working at this potentially their entire lives have not?” These feelings can be quite daunting.

Even when Dr. Queloz did find evidence for 51 Pegasi B in 1994, he was reluctant to show the results to Dr. Mayor, his Ph.D. advisor who was at the time on sabbatical half-way around the world. The evidence pointed to a planet unlike anything in our solar system: a huge Jupiter sized planet that is so close to its parent star that it orbits in only 4 days (Mercury, in inner-most planet in our solar system by comparison, takes about 88 days). Furthermore, the models of planet formation prevalent at the time suggested that forming such a large planet so close to a star should be impossible.

Again, doubt crept into Dr. Queloz’s mind. Which was more likely, that he had found something completely new far faster than anyone had predicted, or that, as a new student he had made a mistake? According to the New York Times:

Dr. Queloz did not feel ecstatic, but rather ashamed, certain that something was wrong with the instrument or his software.

“I really panicked at that time,” Dr. Queloz said. “I didn’t talk to [Dr. Mayor] at all.”

Chang, K., & Specia, M. (2019, October 8). Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Studies of Earth’s Place in the Universe. The New York Times. Retrieved from

I really feel that this is a set of emotions that all students have at some point: “I must be wrong,” “my advisor is the expert,” “who am I to…” Getting over these feelings is I guess part of maturing into an independent scientist.

In this case, the results were real and 24 years after their announcement in 1995, resulted in a Nobel Prize. I think acknowledging that most most Ph.D. theses don’t follow such a trajectory is important. Instead, we as Ph.D. students add our small bit to the cumulative knowledge of humanity and, perhaps more importantly, learn to become independent scientists along the way. However, the feelings expressed publicly by Dr. Queloz are, I think, common, and I hope that through expressing them we can further debunk the “super-brillant professor” stereotype, which can exacerbate equity issues in science according to Leslie, S.-J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265.

An article in the NYTimes on equity in classrooms

I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part from the September 10th New York Times, is an excellent piece by Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on his experience as a low-income student at our neighbor: Amherst College. The article articulates several, perhaps less commonly considered, challenges that students with lower incomes face in the college environment. What can we do within the structure of our classrooms to mitigate some of these challenges? A few thoughts from our experiences here at UMass

Moving to free and open textbooks and homework systems. In physics 131 and 132, I use a custom free-and-open educational resources. These textbooks reduce the cost down to $35 for access to the online homework system. This cost is quite low compared to other courses on campus. However, even so, I still usually have a handful of students who come to me asking for an extension on the first homework because they need to wait for a paycheck to afford this. Fortunately, I can make an arrangement with the textbook company who manages the homework system to get a temporary access.

A bias still exists, however. I can only help those students who come forward and ask for it. I have also experienced students who, at the end of the semester (when students start to calculate their grades), come forward and tell me. I, of course, make allowances, but my range of options reduces as the semester progresses.

While I am currently working to develop a system that will be completely free-to-students, until that project is finished, I will make a note in my syllabus explicitly inviting students to see me if they are having financial challenges that prevent them from accessing this required resource.

Another important consideration is the fact that students with lower incomes, almost uniformly, must work. These additional scheduling constraints, also an issue for students with familial obligations, can make attending traditional office hours a challenge. These issues are why we offer a TA-staffed consultation room with a wide variety of hours, including later in the evening. Since moving from individually selected office hours to this more centralized system, we have observed an increase in office hour usage.

A new direction for the Physics 132 labs

During the Spring 2019 semester, in addition to several changes in the lecture portion of the course, Paul Bourgeois, David Nguyen, and I continued to make changes to the laboratory portion of Physics 132. Motivated by this article from Physics Today, we decided to make our labs much more focused on teaching fundamental data analysis skills as opposed to physics concepts. We also added structural changes to the lab portion to promote in the students a sense of importance and ownership of what we were trying to teach. In general, I think that these changes were, by the end of the semester, positively received and provide a strong way forward for future lab developments in Physics 131 and other courses within our department.

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Reflections on P132 Spring 2019

The semester is (well) over, the grades are in, and the course evaluations have been returned. Based upon this feedback, I must say that I think the strategy used this past semester to apply the TBL strategy in the large lecture hall of Physics 132 was fairly effective. Our changes to the laboratory curriculum (developed in conjunction with Paul Bourgeois and David Nguyen) also seemed to be positive. This post will focus on the team-based learning aspect of the course in the lecture hall. I will reflect on what I did differently and how it compares to both the previous two semesters’ iterations of the course. I will also consider my other prior experience teaching in large lecture halls. The lab will be dealt with in a later post.

Note: this material has now been replicated on the page describing P132

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How to go about directing future improvements to courses?

I am at an interesting point for the first time. I have been teaching the 131 and 132 courses here at UMass for several years and thinking about how to seek continued improvement in an effective way. I know of some faculty who continually do overhauls to keep things interesting and fresh for themselves and for their students. This technique has merits as an interested teacher has intrinsic benefits.

I want, however, to continue to improve my courses in a way that builds upon the successes.

Reflecting on previous iterations, most have been centered on a key pedagogical principle: active learning, team based learning, backward design, flipped, etc. I think this path still has room.

I am thinking about those things that students mention as being particularly engaging: the myosin fibers in the energy unit, the spontaneous structure formation in the entropy unit, the circuit-based study of the neuron in 132. All of these have what is called by Redish et al as “biologically authentic examples.” I would like to both continue to find more, and find ways to integrate them more deeply into the curriculum. Perhaps a case-study type format?