At the Blackboard

At the Blackboard

Photo by Richard Howard

We caught up with Professor of Physics Glenn Stark in his office in the Science Center, where a portrait of Albert Einstein smiles down from the bulletin board.

What’s your specific area of physics?

I’m a molecular spectroscopist. I study how very simple molecules that are found in the Earth’s atmosphere and in other planetary atmospheres and in other astronomical settings interact with ultraviolet light. When a molecule absorbs ultraviolet light, if the light has enough energy, the molecule can break apart into atoms. And that initiates what’s called the photochemistry of the atmosphere. So it’s providing basic laboratory data and modeling of this sort of fundamental process that initiates a lot of the subsequent chemistry that defines what an atmosphere is made of.

Were you excited when Nergis Mavalvala ’90 and her MIT colleagues detected gravitational waves earlier this year?

I was, in part because we have a connection. Nergis was a student in the very first class that I taught—a 200-level modern physics class. [The work] is a confirmation of Einstein’s fundamental theory of general relativity. What’s most remarkable about it is the outrageously ambitious experimental approach they took. It’s incredibly bold—but it’s not a surprise. If you asked my astronomer friends in the observatory, they would say is that it’s potentially ushering in a new way of looking at the universe. Instead of looking at the universe with light, we’re going to look at it with gravitational waves—and the anticipation is that we’re going to see new things.

You’ve been teaching here for 29 years. How’s the department doing?

The sciences are booming at Wellesley. The physics department has doubled the number of majors. We’ve gone from averaging about eight majors per year, which is a reasonably healthy number, but nothing special, to 15 graduating seniors and 15 juniors and 15 sophomores in the pipeline.

What’s in the stack of books on your bedside table?

Novels. I love to read, but it’s almost entirely fiction. I never read about science, ever. I have had a distaste for science fiction since I was a lad.

We heard that you were on the basketball team as an undergraduate at MIT.

I was, I loved it. I was excited beyond belief. I got a uniform! And I sat at the end of the bench. I wasn’t one of the guys who did homework at the end of the bench. There were those who did. I was not a star; I was buried. But it was a wonderful experience.

What’s your favorite spot on campus?

I love a good blackboard. A good blackboard and some good colored chalk. It’s got to be a heavy slate with a velvety touch. I know the best blackboards in the building.

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