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Physics and Astronomy celebrates centennial with year of public events

From critical early developments in television technology to recent detection of cosmic phenomena in faraway galaxies, Washington State University physicists have been at the forefront of scientific education, innovation, and discovery for 100 years. This fall, the Department of Physics and Astronomy (P&A) will launch a yearlong series of free, public events to celebrate its long history of achievement and strong foundation for future success.

J. Thomas Dickinson.

On Thursday, Sept. 5, J. Thomas Dickinson, Regents professor emeritus of physics, will talk about his more than 50-year career in teaching and research and his award-winning work in materials and surface physicsHe will also discuss the significant research of the late Paul Anderson, WSU physics professor, 1931–63, whose innovations in ultra-high vacuum technology contributed to countless inventions and discoveries—from television to the cell phone to evidence of black holes colliding billions of light years away.

Dickinson’s presentation, which is part of the department’s Distinguished Colloquium Series, will begin at 4:10 p.m. in Webster Physical Sciences Building, room 17. It will be followed by dedication of the J. Thomas Dickinson Undergraduate Study and a community reception on Webster Mall.

“The depth and breadth of contributions made over the decades by this department to foundational science and technological progress is truly amazing, particularly since we’re a relatively small department compared to our peers,” said Brian Saam, professor and chair of the department. “Our students especially benefit from the cutting-edge work of P&A faculty and researchers, past and present, and the opportunities to be directly involved in research and education beyond the classroom.”

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WSU Insider

Dr. Universe: What are shooting stars made of?

If you are anything like me, you probably like watching for shooting stars in the night sky. A shooting star, or a meteor, is usually a small rock that falls into Earth’s atmosphere.

Michael Allen.

When I went to visit my friend Michael Allen, a senior instructor of astronomy and physics at Washington State University, he told me a lot of shooting stars are no bigger than a pencil eraser.

“The earth is going to pass a random pebble once in a while and that will make a streak in the sky,” he said.

You might be wondering how such a small rock can create such a bright streak of light. If you’ve ever rubbed your hands together, you may know that friction is what helps them warm up.

When a small rock is falling into Earth’s atmosphere, it falls super-fast. Depending on the meteor, it can travel anywhere from 36,000 feet to 236,220 feet in a single second. As it falls, there is a lot of friction between the air and the rock. With all that friction, the rock starts to get really hot.

It is this friction that will help melt part of the rock. If the rock is small enough, it will evaporate, leaving behind a trail of hot gasses—and that’s the shooting star that you see streaking across the night sky.

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Dr. Universe

Dark skies

For billions of years, Earthly life has flourished in a reassuring 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. Over the past century, however, urban skies have grown increasingly clouded with light pollution. The excess light disrupts circadian rhythms, poses safety and health risks, wastes energy, and exacts a sad aesthetic toll as well.

The creeping effects of light pollution are well documented in the 2016 “World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness.” The satellite images show that 80 percent of the world’s population now lives under sky glow, with 99 percent of Europeans and Americans unable to experience a natural night.

Michael Allen.

Michael Allen, senior instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University is a dark sky advocate who not only enjoys observing the heavens with large telescopes but also voices concerns about the effects of light pollution on the environment.

“It can impact wildlife and the food chain in unpredictable ways,” he says. Allen points to scientific evidence suggesting that artificial light confuses sea turtle hatchlings, leaving millions stranded on the sand. It also disturbs avian migration patterns, and disrupts the feeding and mating cycles of insects, bats, fish, salamanders, and more.

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Washington State Magazine

Dear Dr. Universe: How do lasers work?

Humans use lasers for everything from scanning barcodes and putting on light shows to performing delicate eye surgery and measuring the distances between objects in space.

Chris Keane.

Cats also like to chase lasers, but I wasn’t sure how they worked. I asked my friend Chris Keane, a physics professor at Washington State University. Keane came to WSU from the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he helped work on a laser as big as a football stadium.

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Dr. Universe

New federal grants support energy research

Kelvin Lynn.

Kelvin Lynn, Regents Professor of Physics and faculty member in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has received a $200,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to advance solar research and development.

Lynn, Boeing Chair for Advanced Materials, and his group are working to improve cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar technology. Silicon solar cells represent 90 percent of the solar cell market, but CdTe solar cells offer a low‑cost alternative. They have the lowest carbon footprint in solar technology and perform better than silicon in real world conditions, including in hot, humid weather and under low light.

Researchers have been working to improve the efficiency of the technology but have been unable to reach its predicted limits. Two years ago, Lynn’s group made a key improvement in the technology by carefully adding a small number of phosphorus atoms during the manufacturing process, improving its open‑circuit voltage, or the maximum voltage available from the solar cell. The researchers are leaders in crystal growth research and technology and their crystal growth and doping methods have led to higher quality materials for detectors and photovoltaics.

The project is part of the Energy Department’s FY2018 Solar Energy Technologies Office funding program, which invests in new projects to lower solar electricity costs and to support a growing solar workforce.

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WSU Insider