S.3 E.4: “Very Charged Particles”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus physics professor Chuck Niederriter.
Posted on August 27th, 2020 by

Gustavus physicist Chuck Niederitter describes the research he and some of his students are conducting into muons (a kind of particle), high altitude research ballooning, the challenges and progress of green energy initiatives on campus, the many doors opened by majoring in physics, and Gustavus’s trip to the moon and back.

Season 3, Episode 4: “Very Charged Particles”

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

In a 2008 profile of my colleague and guest today, physicist Chuck Niederriter, our campus newspaper noted that quote, Gustavus is well-known for its department of physics and the professors who create the strong base for the program. Professor Chuck Niederriter or Chuck, to students and fellow professors, is among the group that has worked to get the physics program to the level it is today, unquote. That level is indeed impressive with Gustavus ranking among the top liberal arts colleges, nationally, in terms of the number of physics graduates, go on to earn a PhD in the discipline.

Chuck began his career at Gustavus in 1985. About one year before I did, having earned his PhD in physics that same year from Ohio University. And the year since his dedication and effectiveness as a professor supported by several teaching grants from the National Science Foundation, have won him the Student Senate Swenson-Bunn Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.

While his wide ranging service to the college, including stints as chair of his department, director of our annual Nobel Conference and co-director of our General Education program, has won him the Faculty Service Award. With the support of both internal and external funding, including from the [inaudible 00:01:31] and National Science Foundation’s, Chuck has also maintained an active research agenda in such areas as acoustical scattering and energy storage about which we can get into in a bit.

He has authored dozens of conference papers and also the companion websites and CD ROMs for two college textbooks and physics, and one in astronomy.

Chuck, welcome to the podcast. It’s nice to have this chance to talk with you outside of the Faculty Senate on which we both served and which you’ve also chaired.

Charles Niederriter:

It’s nice to be here. Thanks, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

You’re quite welcome. Great to have you. I never took a course in physics as an undergraduate and certainly not as a graduate student, but like many people, I have sort of a lay person’s interest, partly due to all the hoopla surrounding Stephen Hawking’s career and books. But could you start with kind of lay person’s definition of the discipline? What does physics involve? What do physicists do?

Charles Niederriter:

Physics is a science of trying to understand everything in the world around us, the universe around us, I guess I should say. So it involves lots of different kinds of things from microscopic, submicroscopic kinds of things like subatomic particles, all the way up to understanding the origin of the universe and many things in between. It also involves practical kinds of things, which lead into sort of engineering kinds of things as well. So it’s a great area to start to study because it opens many, many doors.

Greg Kaster:

And when did you start? And where’d you grow up first of all? And how did you wind up in physics? Was that something you knew you wanted to do already as an undergraduate for example?

Charles Niederriter:

It was, I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and I had a high school physics teacher who was, I wouldn’t say he was the best teacher, but he was a lot of fun. We had a good time and I very much enjoyed the physics class with him. And so when I started college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, like most of our students. So I really wasn’t sure, but I took a physics class. I took the sort of what would be the equivalent of our physical world class, which is general education level, lowest level of physics class. I didn’t do particularly well because this is my first semester in college, but I enjoyed it a lot. And so then I signed up for the beginning course in the major, the following semester and just went from there. I had a lot of fun. I got better at figuring out how to do better on exams and things like that. And so I could actually work my way through and eventually go to graduate school and everything.

Greg Kaster:

And did you know already at the undergraduate level, what sort of physics you wanted to do? Or did that come later?

Charles Niederriter:

That came later. I actually didn’t really know much about the different areas of physics. The school I attended, Gannon University, had an engineering program as well. And so there weren’t very many physics majors and we didn’t really have very many options for physics courses. So we didn’t have courses in condensed matter physics or nuclear physics or astrophysics. I had some inkling, I was interested in astrophysics, but I really didn’t know much about what options there were until I was in graduate school.

Greg Kaster:

And what did you specialize in graduate school? What were you working on?

Charles Niederriter:

Actually, I did two different kinds of projects in graduate school. I began working on, I would call it materials engineering program thesis project. Essentially growing thin films of polyethylene like material on metallic substrates in a kind of novel way that was supposed to produce some resistance to corrosion. The idea would be to use them in implants or places where cost was less of an issue and protection was more important.

Greg Kaster:

Excuse me, implants like in medicine, you mean? Medical implants?

Charles Niederriter:

Yeah. Like joint implants, those kinds of things. That project turned into a Master’s project when I could not verify that the materials we were making actually protected the surfaces as well as had been expected. So I bailed on it in some sense after three and a half years of graduate work of research in area and wrote a Master’s thesis on that, and then moved into a more conventional area of electrical and optical properties of amorphous silicon materials, but more of basically condensed matter research of that kind.

Greg Kaster:

What do you mean by amorphous silicon materials?

Charles Niederriter:

So amorphous just means that they cool quickly and don’t have a chance to crystallize. So the particular materials I worked with were made from melt. So you melted the materials together and then you dropped them in cold water basically to cause them to freeze up. And so they didn’t have any long range order. What we found was they had some short range order which affected their electrical and optical properties, which was interesting.

Greg Kaster:

Maybe we should take a slight detour here and talk a little bit about that Master’s work where you said you had to bail on it, because I wonder if you could reflect on that experience a bit and what you learned from it. I think sometimes people think research just, whatever the field, including history, just as sort of a straight forward march, but not always. And that’s a case in point, it seems to me.

Charles Niederriter:

Indeed. Yeah, it was very challenging to get through having invested three years of my time in putting together experiments to try to basically to figure out better ways to make these films and then find out that they didn’t work to do what we thought they would do. It meant giving up some amount of the effort that I put into it. It’s not that it hasn’t been published and all that. It’s just it didn’t lead to the kinds of things I’d hoped it would lead to.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I’m sure you learned a great deal along the way.

Charles Niederriter:

Oh, I did. I learned a lot more about experiment design, a lot more about particular kinds of things. I wouldn’t have had to learn accelerator physics that I did to be able to do those experiments. Some of the things that they still make use of these days and measurement of spectra of very dim sources, which is sort of related to the astrophysics stuff I like to do too.

Greg Kaster:

Correct me if I’m wrong. I’m assuming someone coming out of graduate school with a Degree in physics could find work at least in a good economy in the private sector. Is that something you considered? Or did you know you wanted to go into teaching? And if so, did you know you wanted to be at a liberal arts institution like Gustavus?

Charles Niederriter:

I would say by the time I graduated and got my PhD, I really knew I wanted to teach, but there was certainly many years where I wondered what I would want to do long-term, what maybe turned things around was the opportunity to team teach actually, with my colleague, Steve Mellema, a summer course for high school students. It wasn’t common at that time, but it was sort of project based learning that we did and I want to say it’s been a long time. Over 35 years. So guessing it was about a month long course with high school students. And we had a lot of fun learning physics together and playing with physics lab equipment and toys and that turned out to be a great experience for me and made me think that that might be something I want to do longterm.

Greg Kaster:

And so it sounds like that was before you were actually hired as a faculty member at Gustavus?

Charles Niederriter:

That’s right. That was some time in the seven years I spent in graduate school. I don’t remember exactly where it was.

Greg Kaster:

It’s always so interesting to me how people not only come to their disciplines and work and sometimes it’s very sort of roundabout, but also how we all came to Gustavus. In my case, as I’ve mentioned in other episodes, I actually hadn’t heard of Gustavus. I’m not sure I’d heard of [inaudible 00:11:09] either growing up in the burbs of Chicago. But then when I heard about the historian James McPherson and Sidney Ahlstrom, two great historians I knew from graduate study who had attended Gustavus, I said, “Oh yeah, that sounds good to me.”

And the other thing about Gustavus I like a lot and that has come to matter even more to me in the current context of all these assaults on science and expertise, is its outstanding science programs, including physics of course, as I noted in the intro. And maybe we could turn out to some of your teaching. What are some of the courses you teach? What is it you like about teaching physics in a liberal arts college like a Gustavus?

Charles Niederriter:

Okay. I would say I like the interactions with students. I like seeing the light bulb come on, so to speak, helping them discover their own understanding of physics, which I think is somewhat challenging for some and easy for others, but part of the fun of it is helping all students with all ranges of backgrounds and abilities in the area.

I’ve taught just about every course we have at Gustavus, but that’s typical of the physics program. We’re all generalists in the sense of being able to teach courses or we have specific research areas. We all teach all of the intro courses. We rotate the courses around. There are some courses at the upper level that we don’t really own, but there’re pairs of people or a couple of people that have traditionally taught them.

So for a long time, I was the only one that taught astrophysics. For example for a while I was one of two people that taught the condensed matter course at the upper level. But we all teach the intro courses, we all teach the intermediate courses and we rotate them around and that’s part of the fun of it, is being able to get back in and do a different course every two or three years. It’s a little bit of work, but I think it’s been good for our program and it’s been good for us so that we don’t get stale or bored with the material that we’re doing.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I agree. Was Gannon a liberal arts college?

Charles Niederriter:

Yeah, Gannon was a liberal arts college. That’s like Gustavus, except it had an engineering program as well.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. I attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. So I didn’t attend a liberal arts college, but in my head I wanted to be at such a place. And I do like that aspect of Gustavus where we don’t have to teach to our specific fields or sub fields. In my case I teach a course on the 1960s or even in my course on the civil war, none of which I really specialized in in graduate school.

So you teach a range of courses and you’ve been working with students of course, on and off all these years. So all of you do that in the physics department and really in so many departments, ours included. And before we started recording, you were talking to me about working with a couple of students this summer. What are some of the projects you’ve worked on with students, including the current ones?

Charles Niederriter:

Well, I’ve done a range of things actually emanating from my graduate work. So I started off doing really much of the same kind of condensed matter research. But that I was doing in graduate school when I started at Gustavus. So I was measuring primarily electrical properties, electrical resistance of amorphous materials and I added in the optical properties. We figured out a way to do some of that with the equipment that the chemistry department had. So that was work that I did for quite a few years with students and led to some papers and maybe one publication, I guess, out of that.

The other thing that I did was go back to that Master’s work a little bit and have been working with students on that, on trying to grow those thin films and improve the technique on that. That’s kind of faded, somewhat. In recent years, my work has been in a number of different areas, you mentioned the energy storage thing that was sort of an interesting one year stint. I had a couple students that were interested in trying to figure out how you could make use of renewable energy in a better way. And so they did more or less a theoretical study of all the different ways we could store energy. And that was fun, it turned into a nice project. And a conference paper that the two students presented, that was a number of years ago too.

But that’s one area that led me into thinking about renewable energy, got me more involved in our environmental studies program and the people that teach in that program. I’m now a member of that department, although I haven’t taught any courses ever in environmental studies, I would say. The work that I’ve been doing lately, some of it has been in photovoltaic solar cells. Some has been in wind energy, those are easy things to involve students in. The projects can be, I don’t know if I would say simple enough, but they’re straightforward enough that students can get involved even as first year students.

Greg Kaster:

That is such a huge aspect of Gustavus, is undergraduate research in the sciences and other disciplines. And it sounded like you were using, or the students, for their current research are using balloons. Is that related to the wind energy project?

Charles Niederriter:

That was just another more recent area that I got interested in. So one of our colleagues at the University of Minnesota, James Flaten, who is, I think in the aerospace engineering program up there, is the NASA Space Grant representative from Minnesota. And he invited a number of faculty from liberal arts colleges, I guess small colleges across Minnesota, to come to the University of Minnesota one summer for a workshop on high altitude ballooning.

And so my colleague, Steve Mellema and I went and enjoyed learning about that and we thought it was fun. And it was a lot like one of the things that we used to do together, our families would go to hot air balloon races and chase the balloons. So we got involved and started thinking about the different kinds of science that we could do in using high altitude balloons.

So the particular experiments the students are working on now have morphed over the years, but the two students that are working this summer have been developing muon detectors that are light enough, that we can fly them close to 100,000 feet in the atmosphere.

Muons are basically heavy forms of charged particles that are generated by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. Cosmic rays from galactic sources hit the molecules in the atmosphere and produce a spray of muons, a few of which reach the ground. But we wanted to study the number and energy of those that are produced in the upper atmosphere. So that’s been a, maybe three year project now, four different groups of students maybe have been involved in that over the years.

Greg Kaster:

What is the goal of that project? What are you trying to find out?

Charles Niederriter:

Just like I said, try to understand more about how the muons are formed by studying how many are formed at different altitudes or how many we detect at different altitudes and try to infer where they’re formed. And then also how fast they’re going, basically what their energy is at different altitudes.

Greg Kaster:

How fast do they go? Have you gotten that far yet?

Charles Niederriter:

They’re pretty close to the speed of light. They’re very energetic particles. The ones that reach the ground tend to be very highly energetic, I would say, because they’ve gone fast and made it to the ground before they decay. Muons also have a very short half life, like 2.2 microseconds. So that’s why some of them don’t reach the ground because they decay back into electrons and pions.

Greg Kaster:

And you’ve also done, it’s for educational purposes, but also I think probably for fun as well, is this balloon camp. I know it’s been canceled this summer because of the COVID-19 situation, but that’s a camp involving high school students. Is that right?

Charles Niederriter:

That’s right. We do a one week camp, we invite students to come and we start off teaching them a little bit of atmospheric physics, atmospheric science. We talk a little bit about how the balloons are going to work. And then we basically say, “What do you guys want to measure? We’re going to send up a balloon by the end of the week and what do you want to measure in the atmosphere?” And usually they come up with some interesting things and then we try to figure out how to write code for little mini computers that we can fly, that we can attach to the bottom of the balloon that go up that high and hopefully recover them. So far we’ve been successful.

Greg Kaster:

These balloons are basically going, not into outer space, but close, is that right?

Charles Niederriter:

Right up to the very edge of outer space. I don’t know if there’s a distinct line where you say, but 100,000 feet is upper atmosphere of the earth. The atmosphere is very thin at that point. You can see, and we always fly lots of cameras on these things, you can see the curvature of the earth for sure when you get to that level. You can see lots of interesting aspects of Southern Minnesota from that altitude.

Greg Kaster:

And where do these things land? How do they come back down? So you send them up and then what?

Charles Niederriter:

The balloons themselves go up, we fill them with either hydrogen or helium. Hydrogen’s been cheaper to get lately because since they stopped pumping a lot of natural gas out of the ground, you don’t get as much helium and it’s much more expensive. But we’ll fill up the balloon to about the size of a minivan and it’ll float up to about 90-100,000 feet, depending on the size of the balloon and how stretchy it is, but eventually it bursts. And then the payload falls under a parachute. We always have a parachute with it. We try not to fly where they’re going to land it too far away because it’s hard to chase them and find them.

But also we have really easy places to find them in Southern Minnesota. The fields that we have here are generally pretty easy, although corn is a challenge, finding the payloads in corn could be a challenge, but generally, open fields are better than lakes or forests. And so we in fact postponed our flight that we were going to do yesterday until later next week because it looked like we would end up fairly near Nerstrand Woods and I was a little concerned about being that far north. The northern part of eastern Minnesota has more trees. And if we can stay south, closer to Rochester where it’s a little bit more open.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. So they can land pretty far away, it sounds like.

Charles Niederriter:

They can and we generally determine the parameters, but we’re not very good at it, [inaudible 00:24:25]. The more weight you put on it, the slower it descends, which makes sense. And the more it floats in the direction the wind’s blowing at that time the further away it gets away from St. Peter. And that’s same coming down, but heavier coming down is not so bad because the parachutes are always the same. But we make the mistake sometimes of trying to put too much stuff in the balloon and if the weight gets to be too much, then it takes a long time to float. And the worst example that we’ve done, I would say, was when we launched around 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning, a few years ago, and the balloon eventually landed near Decorah, Iowa.

Greg Kaster:

Oh my God.

Charles Niederriter:

We chased it, we get in the car and we follow it using a radio transmitter that sends the GPS coordinates to us and actually puts them on the internet too, which is kind of fun. We went to Cabela’s and Owatonna and hung out for a while, we saw the balloon going over top when we were in the parking lot and it was still going up and we had lunch. We goofed around in Owatonna for a while. And finally the student said, “Well, we should just go back. I’ve got other things to do.” Everybody had stuff to do in the evening.

Charles Niederriter:

So I went home and watched it on the internet and found out when it was coming down and I watched carefully where it landed. And then Monday afternoon after class, I drove over to Decorah and I searched for it and was lucky enough to find the balloon after about four hours of walking through fields.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. And I’ve been envisioning sort of lost luggage. You put a tag on it, “Return to Gustavus.” There must be identification on it, I’m sure.

Charles Niederriter:

Yeah, we do put tags on it. But the hard part is that not always are people are they as respectful as you might hope, of the scientific equipment, nor do they ever generally find them. This particular balloon was in a field, not too far, maybe a quarter of a mile behind a farmer’s house. And he insisted it wasn’t there because he didn’t see it come down and he didn’t go out and he hadn’t been in that field for probably a couple of weeks. And so it would have sat there for a long time if I hadn’t gone and looked for it.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. I want to urge listeners to go to the balloon camp website where you can see some footage from one of the cameras, as the balloon goes up. It’s pretty cool. You mentioned you and your family chasing hot air balloons. Have been in one? Have you gone up in one? I never have.

Charles Niederriter:

I’ve never gone up in one. My wife, Debbie and I have had a certificate to do it with one of the Stillwater Balloons, I think it’s called and for the last two years, we’ve been trying to get up. And last year, particularly, it was just hard to find a day when it was not windy enough, where they were flying and we were available. We’re a little bit more gun shy this year because of COVID. I contacted them, they’re still flying, but I’m not excited about going in a balloon in a basket that has eight people I don’t know and flying for an hour.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Flying up into the aerosols. While we’re on this topic of almost space, let’s talk a little bit about the observatory at Gustavus. I’ve never been there. I’ve always wanted to go. And I know you’ve been quite involved in that. It’s at the top of Olin Hall. Is that right? Tell us a little bit about what you’ve found over the years.

Charles Niederriter:

Sure. When I came to Gustavus in 1985, the physics department had an observatory on the edge of the arboretum. And it was a shack, really was a shack with a tarpaper roof that leaked and a very nice 12 inch telescope, but the telescope really didn’t survive the moisture, all that well. We recorded the mirror every year for four or five years it seemed like. And it was usable, but not very usable.

So when Olin hall was built in ’91, we asked them to design into it an observatory area. So we have a roof platform where we can take out, we typically don’t take more than six or eight telescopes out on the roof platform, but we have the ability to have as many as 100 people out there, I think.

And then we have a dome where we have a larger telescope that’s mounted permanently. And we’ve used it for lots student projects. We use it, of course, for our teaching of the astronomy course and the astrophysics courses that we do. But most of the fun things that have been, I don’t if I would say discovered, we’ve rediscovered, shall we say, things like asteroids, some aspects of galaxies, how fast they’re receding, we’re able to measure somethings about galaxies. But mostly it’s a teaching tool. We teach students how to use the telescopes, how to use different cameras and spectrometers and so forth.

Greg Kaster:

And Gustavus is really, correct me if I’m wrong, but we really seem to have state-of-the-art equipment, thanks to the profs and grant writing and successful grant writing. So it’s neat to think about having our own little observatory there. I loved going to the Planetarium in Chicago as a kid and still enjoy that. What about the area of research that I mentioned in the intro, acoustical scattering, what does that involve?

Charles Niederriter:

That was an area that I got involved with because my colleagues are doing it or we’re doing things that are related. Paul Saulnier for example, was doing optical scattering and Tom Huber had started to develop some of the work that he does in acoustics. And we were trying to develop an acoustical analog to the work that Paul was doing, which was essentially trying to understand how coherence length, which is going to be hard for me to explain to folks, but how the coherence length of a wave can help us to probe things. For example, if you have milk, just whole milk and you put a [inaudible 00:31:54] washer on a piece of string inside of it, you can’t see the washer easily, mostly because the white lights get scattered by the milk globules. And there are some photons of light and particles or waves of light that actually reflect directly off of the washer and come back and you can detect them and you can see them, but they’re overwhelmed by the ones that are scattered. There’s so many more that are scattered by the milk globules.

So the research that Paul was doing at the time was to try to use the fact that you can interfere light together and make the size of the intensity a bit larger, essentially, if you can arrange constructive interference. And you can do that for waves that have long coherence lengths, so long wave trains or short wave trains. And if they have short wave trains, then the only ones that will interfere and improve or increase the intensity will be ones that are reflected directly off of the washer as we shine light in.

And so you can build an image and we’ve done that now many times, you can build an image of something in a very dispersive medium like milk by using this technique. So we were trying to do it with acoustics using sound waves where we would have more direct control of the coherence length by electronics, essentially by how we produce the acoustical signal.

We found some challenges that made it very difficult to actually perform the experiments we wanted to do. Part of it might’ve been our lack of understanding or a naive take towards how the interference happens and where it occurs. So having the right detectors, having small enough detectors wasn’t in the cards. So that was a fairly, I would say, short term project. We did it for a few years as a group, as a faculty.

At that time there were four of us involved in a major instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation that funded it, got us the equipment to do it, and then we’ve scrounged money for paying for students for summer work and things like that. But it since sort of faded away because the acoustics part of it, at least, we were very successful at getting the experiments to work or to be understandable.

Greg Kaster:

What would have been the practical applications of that or implications of that research if there were any?

Charles Niederriter:

On the optics side of it with light, it’s already been developed. This goes back a few years, but people use the technique that we were working on to image blood vessels underneath the skin, to direct therapies, maybe laser therapies and things like that. That’s been used quite substantially for treating things like port-wine stain in individuals and other kinds of skin diseases or skin problems.

But the work we were doing was more theoretical, we’re trying to understand better what was going on, how our control of the coherence length might be able to improve our understanding of what happened with the light scattering and maybe make it possible for us to make something that worked better.

Greg Kaster:

That all sounds really interesting to me. I remember, I think it was, even though I may only understand 50% of it, but it does sound [inaudible 00:36:22]. I think it was Tom Huber, or a colleague of Tom Huber or maybe it was Paul. Someone had a machine, they were measuring light or something. I remember going to a class and observing and it was really, really interesting to see that. To me, one of the things physics does, you can correct me if I’m wrong, is it sort of helps us understand the invisible all around us, like who thinks about light waves and radio waves, but they’re all there.

Charles Niederriter:

That’s right.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a cool part of it, I think. You mentioned much earlier, we should return to this because it’s important. I think you mentioned your involvement now in the environmental studies program at Gustavus, which is quite strong and you’ve been involved in trying to develop wind energy on campus. Could you say a little bit more about that initiative and where we stand?

Charles Niederriter:

Yeah, I can say a little bit more. I will try not to sound frustrated, but it’s hard for me because it has been a major frustration, I think not just for me, but for a lot of people on campus.

Charles Niederriter:

Many years ago, our two colleagues, Bob Douglas and Bob Moline, started thinking about this and I have lost track about how long ago it was. Maybe 15 years ago or so, I got involved, I got interested in it and we had a pretty good group working on campus to try to determine how much potential we had for producing energy from wind, on campus. That time they were just beginning to develop really good wind turbines that would produce electricity at lower wind speeds, you might think it’s gusty, it’s always gusty on the hill, but in terms of average wind speed, our average wind speed’s lower than many places in the state. And there are better places to put wind turbines if you want to do that.

But at that time, the sort of mid range area in a wind regime was starting to be developed. And so we got involved in it and we had people from all across campus, including President Steuer who had come to our meetings and talked with us about how we might be able to raise money and so forth to get things going.

Greg Kaster:

Previous president of Gustavus. Yeah.

Charles Niederriter:

The previous president. Yeah. And it took a long time. We had plenty of data to show that it would be feasible to do on campus. We started trying to raise money to do it. The utility scale wind turbines are several million dollars kinds of things. So at that time, maybe a million and a half, I think is what we were thinking about. And we did manage, finally to get some money. We had a donor that was willing to give us a million dollars to invest in a wind turbine. We started then pushing harder on getting it done. About that time, the County, Nicollet County, started having some concerns from folks, mostly in Western Nicollet County, about the way wind turbines were being handled, how they were being set up and so forth.

And so they put a moratorium on wind turbines for a year and studied, if you could see what I’m doing, air quotes, studied, the problems associated with wind turbines and their study consisted mostly of looking on the internet and of course you can find all kinds of things about wind turbines and cancer, wind turbines causing abortions, wind turbines causing just about everything.

Greg Kaster:

Probably causing the pandemic. I’m sure people believe.

Charles Niederriter:

If we look now we’re probably causing the pandemic. I have not looked for that one, but probably out there. So when they finally lifted the moratorium, they had developed a set of rules, setbacks, so that wind turbines had to be further than a half mile from all dwellings in the County, if you’re going to put them up, except for the people that were going to benefit from it. So Gustavus put one up, even if it was closer than a half mile from campus and from the dorms and so forth. But there are very few places you can do go to Nicollet County where you’re a half mile from all dwellings.

So we had enough neighbors, that wasn’t going to happen. We asked the County for a variance on that and were denied. That was pretty much the end of the wind turbine projects. Although we considered for a while, just moving across the river and going into Le Sueur County, which is a little bit more generous in terms of their setbacks, but that got to be more expensive and so we just kind of let it go. So lately it’s been more on the solar panels, we’ve been working harder on trying to get solar panels to produce electricity.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sharing your frustration just hearing those details, some of which I didn’t know. The solar panel front is more promising. I mean, more progress has been made.

Charles Niederriter:

That’s definitely true. The $2 million gift that we got was turned into this various solar panels on Beck Hall and Olin Hall and the campus center when Beck Hall was built, it was part of getting the LEED Platinum Certification for Beck Hall. But some of it was photovoltaics and some solar water heating, solar thermal kinds of things for water heat in those buildings. But to be more significant, we don’t really have very much, I want to say we probably have less than a hundred kilowatts of solar on campus. To get to a megawatt of solar, now it’s cheap enough we could do it for probably less than $2 million. And that would be almost equivalent to one of the wind turbines we had been talking about.

But it has its own problems, siting issues. We probably would put them on the ground. Typically the modern roofs we have there is not enough empty space on the roofs to support a lot of solar panels. So they’d generally be ground-based and then you get into locations, whose land do you take to do this? And so that’s been some challenges.

Yeah. And you’re reminding us that there’s the science. I feel confident in the sciences, the ability of science to help us, if not solve, overcome, deal with, live with climate change. And yes, I’m a believer in it, as I’m sure you are too. But it’s the political, it’s the other stuff that gets so complicated. So you think what is the big deal with putting up a wind turbine, but it turns out it’s complicated. And as you’re suggesting, it sounds like County by County, different counties have different rules or regulations you have to deal with. So that’s a whole nother side of it that we need to consider. It’s not just the science and the scientific discovery, but how do you implement some of these innovations.

That’s right. The sociology or political side of it has been more of an issue, even with the solar panels, because we buy our electricity from the city of St. Peter, who buys the electricity from the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Authority. We have to abide by their rules and some of their rules are well, they’re all for the benefit of them and not for us, to just put it that way. So we have some challenges working through that.

So yeah, currently we’ve got a solar developer that has the ability to finance the entire project for us if we were to figure out a way to do that within the requirements of the City of St. Peter and SMMPA. So we’re working with them now to develop some language, more of a leasing arrangement than a power purchase agreement that hopefully will be acceptable. And then maybe we can move this forward.

Greg Kaster:

That would be great. And I’m thinking, as you’re talking, this would be great. We’re implementing this new curriculum called the Challenge Curriculum, this would be a great opportunity for students to work across disciplines. Talk about a challenge, on getting this moving forward, the political part you’d be involving scientists, PoliSci, sociologists, maybe some historians, but fingers crossed.

I do think in general Gustavus is, like all schools, much more conscious of the importance of renewables and sustainables, but still the political hurdles remain.

You are also involved, you and your department, in helping students go on to become engineers. There’s that connection you mentioned earlier in our conversation about physics and engineering. And could you tell us a little bit about the exciting initiative that your department has going to develop a new kind of engineering track within the physics major.

Charles Niederriter:

Yeah, that would be great. Actually we’ve been turning out a number of engineers through our program for years and most of them leave Gustavus and go on and get a Master’s in engineering from a university nearby or farther away even and then practice engineering. And some actually get engineering jobs just straight up with the Bachelor’s degree in physics.

But we wanted to make that easier. We wanted to make the transitions easier for those students. We wanted to make a bigger deal of it. So we’re actually starting a program, we haven’t really officially started the program yet, but we’re working on it, to develop what’s called engineering physics. It’s a hybrid model. It has some engineering and some physics, of course, as it sounds, but more so that would have, in some cases, the students that go on to work in engineering firms find that the word physics in their degree is an impediment to them even getting a job or going on.

So we’ve been trying to just figure out a way to introduce the concept that this basically involves some engineering and they can do engineering. The other thing is, like I said, to make the transition to graduate school easier. So we’ll have more coursework that’s engineering related, specifically engineering related. [crosstalk 00:48:29].

Greg Kaster:

I think that’s okay. Go ahead, sorry.

Charles Niederriter:

It’s okay. [inaudible 00:48:34], we’ve made a proposal for the college to do this. And the first part of it has been started, it has happened. We hired a person, Elizabeth Boatman, who has started programs like this at other institutions and been involved in them at other institutions. So she’s joining us this fall. And during this coming academic year, if we all get to be together somehow, we will be talking about discussing what aspects of engineering we can fit into our program, how we can fit the pieces together to make a very coherent liberal arts college kind of engineering physics program. So that’s the goal. We’re just starting though.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And I think it’s a terrific goal. And it’s another example of how curriculums majors evolve and that’s just true of physics as any other academic discipline. So best of luck with that, I hope it happens.

We should talk a little bit also about Gustavus and the moon. I don’t know how many people know that Gustavus has been to the moon and back, and could you tell us a little bit about the famous pennant that was part of the Apollo 11 flight.

Charles Niederriter:

That’s great, you’re right. Almost nobody knows anything about it. I learned about it I think when I would traditionally give tours and we would stop by in the old Nobel Hall, display case area on the lobby there. And you’d see this pennant that Buzz Aldrin had taken to the moon. It had been flown to the moon and it’s very strange. I didn’t know much of the background until last year, sort of for the 50th anniversary, we learned more about it, partly in some sense, because, as they were beginning to renovate Nobel Hall, they had to move all that stuff out and they wanted a place for the pennants. So we ended up with it at least temporarily. I don’t know, it might turn out to be permanently, but it’s now in Olin.

And so then we had to do a little bit of research into how that all came about, but as it turned out Buzz Aldrin had been on campus for, he received an honorary degree. He had been involved in some lectures and so somebody, at marketing, no doubt, thought it would be a good idea when they found out he was going to the moon, to ask him if he could do it. And apparently no other institutions had done that. Nobody had thought of the idea of taking a pennant from Gustavus or from some other institution to the moon so that you could bring it back and then claim that had been to the moon.

So it was pretty cool. We had a good time last year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. Our colleague in marketing, Tom Young, built a Saturn V replica and we flew it, it crashed quickly, but we flew a lot of other model rockets that day, had a good day flying rockets, but we displayed the pennant as proudly as we could to the people that came.

Greg Kaster:

I love that story. I don’t know how old I was, I was probably like young teens, just riveted by that whole event, Apollo 11’s journey and landing and return. That’s really cool. In the time remaining, let’s talk a little bit about the physics major and why students might want to major in physics. What is it that makes physics important in the context of a liberal arts college? You’ve talked a little bit about this earlier, I think. Why might a student want to major in physics? And also a little bit about what some of your graduates go on to do.

Charles Niederriter:

Well, let me start with the second part, what our graduates do, because that really is what drives the first part. Our students or alumni have done, I would say just about everything possible with the physics major, there’s all kinds of things they can do. We have alums who are attorneys, patent attorneys, but not just patent attorneys, trial attorneys and so forth. We have a number of alums who are MDs, emergency medicine, cardiology, you name it, in that area.

Engineering of course, biomedical engineering, very popular area these days. And lots of our alums have done that kind of stuff. We have a kind of connection with the Mayo graduate program. And so that’s a great program for biomedical engineering. We usually send a student or two a year into that program.

But essentially, our students study physics mostly because it opens so many doors to so many different career areas. Certainly physics education and that kind of stuff, high school physics teacher, college teacher, whatever, but engineering related things just research kinds of things. Mathematics that you learn can be applied to making money on the stock market, becoming a day trader, for example, that works really well as you get pretty smart at [inaudible 00:54:42] and you can figure out what stocks to buy and so forth.

There’s just a whole range of things and our students have done it, it’s just crazy. I’ve known a lot of alumni now, I’ve been at Gustavus for 35 years. So I know a lot of students and what they’ve done and I’ve just continued to be impressed by what they are able to do, how their careers have flourished. So it’s been a lot of fun.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so interesting to me, people with history, what can I do with history? And I think sometimes students with physics, “I can do this with physics. Physics leads to this.” But you’re saying then yeah, it does lead to engineering, yeah, physics will lead to that, of course. But also there’re some unexpected things, the law, you’ve got people in all walks of life, which is, I think that just is an embodiment of what the liberal arts ethos and liberal arts college should be about, that your major doesn’t lead necessarily to one particular point or a few particular points, but just prepares you, the name of the podcast, prepares you for learning for life as physics certainly does. I would be remiss, at least for myself, if I didn’t ask you, how worried should I be about black holes?

Charles Niederriter:

You shouldn’t be worried about black holes, Greg. They certainly exist, even in microscopic varieties, but I think the fact that they were able to turn on The Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Brookhaven Accelerators ramped up to levels where the production of micro black holes would be possible and no disasters have occurred, I think gets probably practical evidence that they’re not that common.

On the other hand, in space they might be fairly common, but they’re far enough away from us that they’re not going to bother us.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. I was hoping you would say something like that. I can sleep better. This has been great fun, hope to see you back on campus before long. Anyone interested in physics should visit the physics homepage on the Gustavus website, or even email professor Niederriter or any member of the department. So Chuck, thank you so much, happy ballooning and take care.

Charles Niederriter:

Okay. Thank you very much. It’s been great fun. You’re quite welcome. Take care. Bye bye.

Greg Kaster:

Bye.

 

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Leave a Reply