Arshad Kudrolli, associate professor of physics, studies non-linear physics. Specifically, he is researching complex materials like sand that exist between the four states of matter--gas, liquid, solid and plasma. His lab is filled with undergraduate and graduate students working together to understanding the complex questions about these materials.
Kudrolli: We try very hard to involve students in the research. There are some students in other universities that are expected to clean floors if they work in a physics professor’s lab. But here, undergraduates have a direct level of involvement in the research. I think that’s a very unique thing about Clark.
We attract top graduate students to our program and having them on campus allows us to do cutting-edge research. Each graduate student in my lab is actually working on a unique project. Undergraduates have opportunities to work with them and me on those projects. The undergrads learn from the graduate students and vice versa, which makes for a great research team with all levels of expertise. And many times, that research gets presented at national meetings around the country.
There also is a lot of cross-disciplinary research that is going on in physics. Some of our students are working on interdisciplinary research with Clark biologists and chemists--- physics professor Chris Landee and chemistry professor Mark Turnbull have been working closely together for years and their students work in each other’s labs.
Kudrolli: We work on non-linear physics of complex materials. An example is sand. It’s granular matter which, as a collection is solid, but if poured, flows like a liquid. We’re trying to understand what materials like sand really are.
Actually, granular materials are the second most kind of material we use every day. The cereal you eat is granular; the sugar you use in your coffee is granular. And these materials are used for important applications like building dams and holding walls. The mechanics have not all been worked out, which is surprising since you see applications for this everywhere. It’s a section of physics that needs a lot more research
Kudrolli: Absolutely. We get a wide variety of students taking our courses. Along with the students who know they want to study physics, we get art students who want to understand the complexities of color and how it combines and interacts.
Kudrolli: I try to give creative assignments because the students are creative--they always surprise me with their ideas. For example, I gave them an assignment to break into teams and measure the height of this science building. The rule was that they couldn’t climb the building! Each team came up with really creative solutions to this problem. The cleverest solution came from a team that took a picture of the building on a cell phone, measured the image with a scale, and then just multiplied the ratios to get the height of the building.
Kudrolli: We do a lot of hands-on experiments using tools like motion detectors that can interact with computers. In fact, the first lab that I teach in my introductory course teaches student how to take measurements of speed so they can understand how acceleration works. In this experiment, they use the motion detector and simultaneously, the computer interprets and graphs the results, calculating velocity verse time. Having our equipment interface with computers saves a lot of time.
Kudrolli: Physics majors do learn those basics in the calculus-based courses. But overall, I believe computers are extremely useful to the field of physics. In certain experiments everything can be programmed, even laws of motion. That means you don’t have to sit there and acquire data over and over again with a paper and pencil. That has its uses, but if you can use computers for that data crunching part of an experiment, it frees you up to do the more complex thinking and work.