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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2014

In Motion: Taming chaos with Nicholas Cerruti

Physics is the study of matter and its motion through space and time—a natural science that describes how the physical world works. From the development of the wheel to the latest Nobel prize-winning research on LED lights, physics helps to make peoples’ lives better. Nicholas Cerruti, a WSU senior instructor in physics, is on the leading edge of training the next generation of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals in this important discipline.

Nicholas Cerruti
Nicholas Cerruti

Why do you enjoy teaching?

The interaction with the students and the fun of watching them learn something new is what I enjoy most about teaching. I normally teach the introductory physics courses: 201/202 are geared towards engineers and 101 is more appropriate for students interested in life sciences or pre-health professions. My class sizes range from 150 to about 220 students, so one of my biggest challenges is getting to know students and getting them involved.

One of the best feelings in the world is when a former student stops by with a physics-related question for an engineering or chemistry project that incorporates or goes beyond what they learned in my class.

Do you use iClickers during lecture?

I have considered adding interactive clickers and recently I substituted for another professor recently who uses them regularly. I was kind of excited to test them out, but I found that the clickers take away a lot of time from the course material. They are great for review and assessment, but not as useful when helping students with problem solving.

Cerruti teaches a class of Physics 201 students.
Cerruti teaches a class of Physics 201 students.

Outside of classes and labs, how can students learn more about physics?

The Physics and Astronomy Club on campus provides students with hands-on experience and practical applications of what they are learning in class. For example, with the weather balloon they released last spring, the students had to figure out how much helium would be needed to reach their target height of 65,000 feet. Buoyance is something they learn in the 200-level courses so this was an opportunity to use that knowledge to calculate the burst height and how much pressure is exerted on the edges of the balloon. You might expect the more helium in the balloon, the higher it will go. However, because of the decrease in atmospheric pressure as the balloon ascends, more helium actually expands more quickly and the balloon bursts at a lower altitude. A lucky combination of weather patterns and the right balance of helium took the balloon (and the attached WSU flag and a GoPro camera) much higher than anticipated. And yet it returned to Earth relatively near where the students and the jet stream software predicted it would land, so it was pretty easy for them to recover.

As the club’s faculty advisor, it’s also a way for me to get to know students outside of class and gain some insight on what sort of things interest them so I can perhaps incorporate those interests into my teaching. It’s a little different every year, depending on the president and students involved. This year they are pretty self-motivated and have everything in place for the annual Pumpkin Drop on Dad’s Weekend. Our department program assistant, Mary Guenther, is a terrific resource for the club, too.

What other roles to you have in the department?

In addition to my teaching duties, I am an undergraduate academic advisor with a focus on transfer students. The challenge is helping them figure out how their classes at other institutions line up with ours—making sure they have their chemistry, their math, and core physics courses completed. Sometimes the curriculum at community colleges doesn’t quite align with what we teach here at WSU.

I also serve on the department’s undergraduate academics committee and have been a regional councilor for the national Society of Physics Students.

Physics spans matter of all kinds. What is your area of expertise?

My Ph.D. thesis focused on quantum chaos, where statistics are used to predict the general behavior of a system that has extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.

For example, if you play a billiard ball against the rail on a standard rectangular table, classical mechanics can predict the path it will travel with a high degree of accuracy. Chaos theory is like playing pool on an oval or stadium-shaped table. With the variance in straight and curved edges, after a few bounces, it’s very difficult to predict which direction the ball will travel. Chaos theory can describe general behavior, but not the location or direction of the ball at any given point in time. Quantum chaos theory has applications in quantum computing and can predict statistically how perturbations from the environment affect qubits.

Over the years, how has the view from your 12th floor office changed?

My office in Webster Hall faces south towards Lewiston and I can see most of Bishop Boulevard. When I first arrived in Pullman, that road was lined with nothing but wheat fields beyond the Holiday Inn. I watched the movie theater, and the hospital, and the Walmart store being constructed. It’s been interesting to observe how Bishop Boulevard and the town have changed in the nearly 20 years that I have been in here.

Snapshot: Department of Physics and Astronomy

Created in 1919 with less than five faculty members, the original department offered a range of undergraduate courses in general physics along with specialized topics such as Physics and Woodwork, Household Physics, and Physical Theory of Music.

Webster Physical Sciences Building
Webster Physical Sciences Building

Today, the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s highly productive faculty of 22 professors, researchers, and lecturers deliver more than 12,000 student credit hours of instruction in everything from astrophysics to optics. The department oversees an average of $2 million in annual research grant expenditures with collaborations extending across the University and interdisciplinary units, such as the Materials Science and Engineering Program, the Center for Materials Research, and the Institute for Shock Physics.

More than half of the faculty are fellows of at least one scientific professional scientific society, including the American Physical Society, the International Society of Optics and Photonics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (The national average for academic departments is roughly 10 percent.)

The department provides significant UCORE instruction for all undergraduates and area-specific courses for students majoring in disciplines such as chemistry, biology, neuroscience, engineering, education, and environmental sciences, as well as for students preparing for careers in health professions, such as medicine, dentistry, nursing, physical therapy, and pharmacy.

Degrees offered

  • Bachelor’s in physics, with specializations in:
    • Astrophysics
    • Biophysics
    • Computational Physics
    • Continuum Physics and Acoustics
    • Environmental Physics
    • Materials Physics
    • Nanotechnology
    • Optics and Electronics
    • Physics Teaching
  • Minor in astronomy
  • Master of science in physics
  • Ph.D. in physics

Interesting facts

The Jewett Observatory houses the largest refracting telescope in the state of Washington. The 12-inch double lens was polished at the Alvin Clark & Sons factory near Boston between 1887 and 1889.

The doctoral program was established in 1950.

The astronomy program was transferred from Department of Mathematics in 2004.