Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 26, 2007|Volume 35, Number 15















Meg Urry says researchers in the physical sciences are "a very curious and determined bunch of people who won't let go until we figure something out."

Urry: Physics has 'transformed the way we live'

C. Megan Urry, who will become the first woman chair in the Department of Physics on July 1, has earned renown both for her research on super-massive black holes and for her efforts to expand the options for and increase the number of women and minorities in the physical sciences. Urry is the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

When announcing her appointment, President Richard C. Levin said, "Meg Urry embodies the best in research, in teaching and in championing the value and wonder of the physical sciences."

When Urry arrived at Yale in 2001, she developed two large collaborative research projects with Chilean astronomers and designed new courses to introduce undergraduates to the physical sciences. She has also been instrumental in encouraging Yale students through the Women Faculty Forum mentoring program, and in introducing science to young people in the New Haven area through her participation in the "Science Saturdays" program.

Provost Andrew Hamilton has noted, "Her ability to inspire and work with students and administration on all levels has already brought an expanded awareness and appreciation of sciences to our Yale community."

Urry's scientific research concerns understanding the energetics, structure and evolution of active galaxies -- i.e., galaxies with unusually luminous cores powered by very massive black holes.

Yale already had one female chair in the physical sciences, a broader field that includes several disciplines. She is Professor Lisa Pfefferle, who chaired the Department of Chemical Engineering in the 1990s.

While Urry is the first female tenured professor to hold a primary appointment in the Department of Physics, former Yale faculty member Karin Rabe held a secondary appointment in physics, although she was affiliated primarily with the Department of Applied Physics.

Urry recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about the future of Yale Physics.

What is most exciting to you about the field of physics today?

The new physics that is just around the corner. In almost every field, new discoveries are solving current problems and suggesting new questions. In my own field, astrophysics, new telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra have revealed hidden black holes far more numerous than we previously knew, and have suggested a very close connection between the formation of galaxies and the growth of massive black holes at their centers. How this works is a mystery, but I know we are going to figure it out -- just give us a few years.

Astrophysics is my field, so I know it best, but the same kinds of discoveries are happening throughout physics. Just when we think we get close to a full understanding of some physical phenomenon, we notice something is just a little bit off -- and when we push harder, with better measurements, we discover something very new. Maybe this will happen with the new Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. Maybe we'll see it in high-precision experiments to measure the properties of the neutron or electron. Maybe we'll detect the mysterious dark matter particles that causes galaxies and clusters to hang together. Maybe theorists will think of clever new ways to describe the rich phenomena of nature. There is no end to the possibilities.

What does the new "map" of the universe tell those of us who see only the sun, moon and stars?

The most amazing discovery of the last century is that, until 1998, we had missed the dominant constituent of the universe. It turns out it's not the matter we see (stars and galaxies); it's not even the matter we don't see (the so-called "dark matter" that we infer from its gravitational pull). Rather, it's some strange kind of energy that pushes galaxies apart -- either that or Einstein's theory of gravity needs refinement. Either way, it's a tremendously exciting period for astrophysics.

What has your experience shown you about the opportunities in physics and the other physical sciences?

The physical sciences have transformed the way we live. Sometimes breakthrough discoveries have taken 50 or more years to enter our daily lives, but there is no doubt of their impact. Just to take one example: The discovery nearly a century ago of quantum mechanics -- the probabilistic description of the behavior of matter and energy on very small scales (which must have seemed quite esoteric and not very practical at the time) -- is at the heart of every modern electronic device you know and love: your iPod, your cell phone, your computer, etc. The physics of the early 20th century ended up fueling the economy of the early 21st century. Who knew?

But I guess it isn't the applications that motivate me as much as trying to understand the basic phenomena of nature. How does the world work? How did we get here? Why is the universe the way it is? I get to spend my day trying to answer that kind of question and call it work. Hey, it just doesn't get any better than that!

Is it as demanding as it is portrayed for anyone, male or female, to have a successful and rewarding career in the physical sciences?

Well, I guess we work hard, but so do lots of people. I don't think that's what distinguishes a career in the physical sciences. It's more that we are a very curious and determined bunch of people who won't let go until we figure something out. So, we are persistent, and we also have to be lucky -- but, maybe luck comes more readily to those who meet it halfway. The most important thing is to do something you love, whether it's physics or music or cooking or writing. For me, the most fun is learning something new. Especially when it's a difficult problem, figuring it out can be extremely rewarding. At times like that, I really don't think about the hard work, I just feel satisfied and happy.

What has changed most in the teaching/learning of physics here at Yale?

We've started using some innovative techniques to teach physics, particularly at the introductory level, which I think will allow us to reach a broader group of students. You know, a lot of students think physics is difficult or frustrating or both. We have to find ways of conveying the material that makes it more accessible and more exciting for those students. I'd also like to see us continue to broaden the applicability of a physics education. Not every major needs to go to graduate school in physics.

Physics is incredibly important to many different areas of life, and the basic training in observation of nature and methodical deduction about underlying principles, not to mention the technical training in mathematical methods and computing -- these skills are highly valued from Wall Street to law school to medical school to consulting firms.

What will be your biggest challenge as chair of the Department of Physics?

For better or worse, I'm not approaching this like a new CEO trying to transform a company. The fact is, I will become chair of a department full of fantastic colleagues -- talented, friendly, generous and united in the goal of keeping Yale at the top in physics research and teaching. I'm following a series of very successful chairs, most recently, the amazing [Ramamurti] Shankar, who have put the department on a very firm footing. My main goal is to not mess it up -- and my biggest challenge will be to be one-tenth as funny as Shankar!

We're going to keep hiring fantastic young faculty, enabling cutting-edge research and giving students the best possible education. Yale Physics has a glorious history, and we're going to make sure the 21st century continues that distinction.

-- By Janet Rettig Emanuel


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