Oct. 19, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 3

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    Swordy succeeds Nagel as Master of Physical Sciences Collegiate Division

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Simon Swordy, Professor in Physics, said he believes undergraduates and research are equally important to the University’s intellectual vitality. As Swordy embarks on a three-year term as Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division, he explained his position.

    Simon Swordy (second from left) discusses data with undergraduate students Phil Barbeau, far left, and Jacob Robbins, and Mike Boyle. Swordy and his students are analyzing experimental particle astrophysics data.
    “The presence of a group of enthusiastic young people who are primed to learn gives the University a different character than research labs at NASA or the Department of Energy,” he said. “When you teach classes to undergraduates, you may think you can pontificate a bit, but the reality is that you constantly have to re-examine what you know and why it is important–especially when you teach undergraduates of this caliber. That contact prevents you from stagnating.”

    Appointed by John Boyer, Dean of the College, and David Oxtoby, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences, Swordy succeeds Sidney Nagel, the Louis Block Professor in Physics.

    “I am deeply grateful to Sid for his support of the College and for his farsighted and courageous leadership of the undergraduate programs in the Physical Sciences,” said Boyer, adding his delight with Swordy’s appointment. “Simon is deeply interested in making sure we offer an effective and imaginative curriculum in the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division.”

    A graduate of the University of Bristol, Swordy earned his Ph.D. in 1978 and joined the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute one year later. He has taught courses in Physics since 1983 and in the College since 1989.

    Swordy’s research focuses on how cosmic rays are created and how to detect them, which ultimately may lead to a better understanding of dark matter. His experiments involve the use of spacecraft and high-altitude balloons that measure cosmic- ray particles–high-energy bits of matter and antimatter that travel to the earth from space. Among his projects are VERITAS, a high energy gamma-ray telescope, TRACER, a high-altitude balloon that will circle the North Pole, and ACCESS, an experiment that is planned for operation on the International Space Station, where it will measure nuclei found in cosmic rays.

    “Simon Swordy is an outstanding physics teacher who is a leading researcher. He will bring imagination and energy to his new position, which links the College and the Physical Sciences Division,” said Oxtoby.

    “I look forward to working with him to further strengthen our teaching program in the physical sciences.”

    Among his objectives as Master, Swordy wants to amplify the role of astronomy and astrophysics in undergraduate education, look toward more interdisciplinary options in the curriculum such as biophysics and provide physical sciences courses that increasingly familiarize students with the use of the most modern scientific equipment.

    While Swordy advocates linking College concentrators to research labs, he said one of his main goals is to reach out to non-majors whose only exposure to the hard sciences may be their general education coursework. Swordy, who analyzes experimental particle astrophysics data with the help of several undergraduate students in his lab, is keenly interested in how undergraduates view the physical sciences, and how the academic and cultural gaps among the divisions may be bridged.

    “Compared with the necessary dialogue about a book in a humanities classroom, where everyone is going to have their own interpretation, the correct answer in a scientific experiment is not only always the same, it’s not up to the people who seek it. That’s outside of human control,” said Swordy.

    “We seek truth by applying the scientific method. If you are not a quantitative thinker, then you may struggle with that.”

    Swordy wants non-majors to find value in that struggle because he believes understanding how to approach a problem from a scientist’s point of view can add a beneficial dimension to how students approach their world.

    “The advantage of having a quantitative view of things is that you can make your mind up regardless of what anyone says to you,” said Swordy. “One of the great things about people at Chicago is that we produce a lot of people who can think that way. And ultimately, that’s how we impact our society–with independent thinking people.”