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The Physics/Astronomy Press 2011

News and Notes from the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Montana Greetings

Greetings to our alumni and friends. Our department continues to grow and this year we added 1.5 lecturer positions to our department and we are in negotiations to add an additional lecturer position. How did we add half a lecturer? Diane Friend has had a halftime lecturer position in the department for a number of years and Diane will now be fulltime. One sad note is that Jim Jacobs retired at the end of the spring semester due to health reasons. Jim has had a tremendous impact on the department, both as an awardwinning teacher and as a valued colleague. As department chair, Jim helped initiate and implement important changes in the department. These changes have enabled us to have an improved balance between teaching, research and service in our department. Jim’s perseverance in continuing to teach over the last couple of years has been remarkable. He has maintained a positive attitude and a sense of humor in the face of adversity. He is an inspiration to his students and to all of us. A generous (and anonymous) donor has made a matching gift of $10,000 to establish the James Jacobs Fund. This fund will be used to help support the upper-division physics laboratories and to support students working on projects to improve these laboratories. We need your help to meet this match (see the last page on how you can contribute).

Jen Fowler wins the 2011 Outstanding Staff Award

Jen Fowler is the winner of the University of Montana’s Outstanding Staff Award for 2011. Jen is certainly well-deserving of this award which recognizes “Excellence in Job Performance”. Jen is the second member of the department to win this award. Michele Kratz won the award in 2004. Jen has been energetic and creative throughout her time at UM and has provided outstanding service to students and our department. For more information on one of Jen’s latest initiatives, see the article at right on a recent research trip to Colombia.

Spring 2011

UM Physics and Astronomy 100th Anniversary Celebration September 30 - October 1, 2011 To mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, we are hosting a celebration for homecoming. We invite all of our alumni to return to UM for the celebration. Come tell us about your current research and professional experience. Find out how Missoula, UM, and the department have changed over the years. This also corresponds to the UM Homecoming weekend for 2011. For more information and to register for the celebration, visit the web site:

Abby Thane holds a balloon prior to launch.

An Adventure in Colombia

UM staff member Jen Fowler and UM physics major Abby Thane recently took a research trip to the rainforest in Colombia. Jen and Abby’s field research in Leticia, in the Amazon Basin, was in collaboration with researchers from Oxford Brookes University and Fundación Entropika, a local NGO in Colombia. The goal of the research was to conduct measurements of the environmental lapse rate above the rainforest and provide much needed data to help constrain global climate change models. A particular motivation for this project is that some climate models predict a more intense warming of the troposphere over the tropics compared to other locations. This initial venture was to assess the feasibility of increasing available sounding data in tropical conditions. They focused on characterizing uncertainties in the use of radio-

Tracking a balloon after launch.

sonde data to establish vertical profiles of the environmental lapse rate. They had six radiosonde flights over five days and analyzed the data after each flight. Initial results show some infrastructure constraints, and indicate a definitive need for an increased concentration of long-term and homogeneous radiosonde data in the Amazon Basin.

Jen, Abby (in the center) and crew.

The Physics/Astronomy Press 2011: Research Focus Undergraduate Research

In addition to faculty and staff involvement in research, many of our undergraduate physics majors are also involved in research, both working with faculty and staff at UM and at research facilities around the U.S. and Puerto Rico through REU programs (Research Experience for Undergraduates). Last summer, physics majors Alissa Wersal and Adam Clinch participated in REU programs. Adam’s was at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in plasma physics. He presented the results of his research in a senior capstone seminar titled, “Analyzing Kink Instabilities and Measuring Magnetic Fields in a Line-Tied Plasma.” Alissa’s was at Michigan State University in nuclear physics. She presented the results of her research at the American Physical Society’s Division of Nuclear Physics meeting last fall in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in a senior capstone seminar titled “Calibration and Analysis of Gamma Decay Data in Accelerator Reactions.” This summer, physics major Abby Thane will be headed to Puerto Rico to participate in an REU at Arecibo Observatory. Currently we have eighteen undergraduate students employed in the department and many of the these students are working as research assistants on various projects. Fred Bunt, Lucas Jones, and Kelly Lennard are working on computational plasma physics research. JP Crawford and Katherine (Katya) Kalachev are working on astrophysical research. Dan Molgaard and Sofia Tanberg are working on space physics research. Briana Peck and Miles Olsen are working on experimental solid state physics research. Rebecca Milsap and Deborah Ross are working on the Borealis ballooning project. Colin Corbett is working on the development of experimental apparatus for an upperdivision laboratory class. These research opportunities, both here at UM and through REUs, provide valuable, hands-on experience for our physics majors. This type of undergraduate research experience is also becoming essential for students applying to graduate school. We will continue to strive to provide these opportunities for our students in the future.

Unpredictable dot sites in an array of magnetic nano-dots.

Unpredictable dot sites in an array of  magnetic nano­dots.  Nanoscale Magnetic Structures

Assistant Professor Michael Schneider has established his lab in the basement of the Charles H. Clapp Building and he and the physics majors working with him are examining the spin properties of nanoscale structures. In one of these projects, Professor Schneider and physics major Miles Olsen, as part of a collaboration between the University of Montana, The National Institute for Standards and Technology, and Hitachi Global Storage, determined that intrinsic defects in underlying magnetic thin films are responsible for reducing predictability in nano-scale magnetic devices. Their work was published in October 2010 in Physical Review B. The image above was selected for the Physical Review B Kaleidoscope of Images displayed on the web site of the journal. Large arrays of magnetic nanodots have been proposed as a potential solution to achieve higher data storage densities in hard disk drives. Current technology does not scale beyond 1 Terabit per square inch because of the superparamagnetic effect. When the superparamagnetic limit is reach formerly stable magnetic materials begin to change their magnetic orientation spontaneously. Magnetic nanodots offer a way around the limit by increasing the volume of magnetic material that behaves as a single magnetic domain. However, materials used for current thin film versions of hard disk drives

present new difficulties when patterned down to sizes of 100 nm in diameter. The magnetic nanodots can require drastically different magnetic field values to be applied in order to change their orientation when compared to the film from which they are patterned. Even worse for using them in data storage, the magnetic field required for reorientation can be drastically different from dot to dot. This distribution of magnetic fields required for reorientation is referred to as the switching field distribution and is currently one of the major hurdles that must be overcome for this technology to be viable. When large distributions of switching fields were first observed in arrays of patterned nanodots, it was thought that the patterning process itself was the reason for the discrepancies. However, this recent research clearly shows that small magnetic defects which typically do not affect the behavior of magnetic thin films become of critical importance once the films are patterned down to the nano-scale. The researchers are now trying to understand how these defects are formed. The results of this study are not only important for future hard disk drives but also are applicable for spintronics, a class of next generation devices such as magnetic random access memory where both the charge and spin of the electron are used to manipulate and store data.

The Physics/Astronomy Press 2011: Teaching Focus Teaching Overview

Every year our department offers approximately 148 credit hours of classes. These include Science classes for elementary-education majors, large enrollment general education courses in astronomy and physics, honors classes on the universe and relativity, and upper-division courses for our majors on topics such as classical mechanics, galactic astrophysics, quantum mechanics, stellar astronomy. With record enrollment at the University of Montana, some of these courses are at or near capacity. We had two Adjunct Assistant Professors leave our department and two join our department this past year. Jack Dostal and John Williams left the department and we wish them well in their careers. Alex Bulmahn and Benjamin Grossmann joined our department this year. Alex received his PhD from the University of Iowa in 2010 and Benjamin received his PhD from Oklahoma State University also in 2010. This is the first position after their PhD for both Alex and Benjamin. Last fall, Assistant Professor Nate McCrady’s revamped course “Observational Astronomy” was a big hit. The students learned data analysis techniques using IDL and prepared their papers using the typesetting program LaTeX. Needless to say, the students did a lot of work in this class but also gained a great deal of knowledge and useful skills in the process. For more on this course, see the following article.

High-TeX Observational Astronomy

Fall semester 2010 marked the debut of the Department’s completely revised laboratory course in observational astronomy, Astronomy 362. Assistant Professor Nate McCrady developed the course to develop practical research skills and technical expertise in astronomical data acquisition, calibration and analysis among physics majors in the astronomy option. Topics in the course include the statistical behavior of light, detection of faint light sources in the presence of background noise, the fundamentals of stellar photom-

An image of the young Galactic star cluster NGC 884, imaged in visible light (BVR filters) with our new 1024 x 1024 CCD on the Department’s 11-inch telescope. Stars in the cluster range from blue to white to red in color, a result of the different surface temperatures of these stars. This image was constructed from 150 individual images, with a total exposure time of 15 minutes. Image analysis by JP Crawford.

etry and broadband imaging with digital detectors, and high resolution spectroscopy. Students worked with highly sensitive photomultipliers, a research quality CCD camera, a fiber-fed spectrometer, an 11-inch telescope and a benchtop echelle spectrometer used with the Department’s heliostat telescope to obtain high resolution spectra of the Sun. Key goals of this new course include preparing students for research work and enhancing the competitiveness of Montana students for graduate school and summer internship programs. Six students from Fall 2010 will be applying their data analysis skills this coming summer in research projects at UM and other institutions. Development of this course was funded by an Educational Enhancement Grant from NASA and the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

The department’s 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, used by students in Astr 362 for imaging and spectroscopy. (Photo: Briana Peck)

The Physics/Astronomy Press 2011: Alumni Focus

Professor Jacobs addresses the graduates.

Commencement 2010

Each year we celebrate our graduates in our department ceremony following the main commencement ceremony with an address, awarding of degrees, cake, and an occasional physics demo. We would like to congratulate our alumni from last year’s graduation ceremony. We wish them well in all of their future endeavors. Class of 2010: Doug Brugger, Amber Jessop, Arlo Johnson, Collin Jones, Elisha McElroy, Kathleen McGarvey-Lechable, and Keith Steele in Physics; Tammy Abell, Caleb Beaudin, Keith Ginoff, Jeremy Hostetter, Zach McGarvey, Ron Powell, and Ryan Schmitt in Physics with Astronomy.

Tammy Abell recieves her degree.

Mauna Kea Observatory - Teddy George’s place of work.

Alumni Updates

Here are some highlights from a few of our many alumni who have had noteworthy events in their lives. Please send any updates to We would love to hear from you. Class of 1999: Teddy George, is currently an observing assistant at the CanadaFrance-Hawaii telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. Class of 2001: In 2007, Kelly Nelson received tenure as a physics teacher at Missoula’s Sentinel High School. Class of 2003: In 2009, David Westerly received his PhD in medical physics from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

David is now an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Colorado - Denver.

In 2010, Ted Fisher also received his PhD in medical physics from the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Class of 2005: Daniel Guest is now a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Montana State University. Class of 2007: In December of 2010, Lesley Herrmann completed her MS degree in engineering from the University of Colorado - Boulder. Class of 2009: Seana Blohm is a graduate student in science education at Towson State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Sentinel High School in Missoula - Kelly Nelson’s place of work.

UM Excellence Fund: Department of Physics and Astronomy

Our department relies on gifts from our friends and alumni to enhance the quality of our program. If you would like to make a contribution, gifts to our department can be made through the Excellence Fund of the UM Foundation. You can contribute online at: You can also send a check payable to the “UM Foundation” with a note in the memo to direct this to the “Department of Physics and Astronomy Gift Account”, the “David Friend Memorial Fund”, or the “James Jacobs Fund.” The address for the UM Foundation is: UM Foundation P.O. Box 7159 Missoula, MT 59807-7159

Spring 2011 - University of Montana - Physics & Astronomy Newsletter  

University of Montana's Physics & Astronomy Newsletter.

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