I believe discipline boundaries are artificial. Philosophy and neuroscience aren’t separate fields. The mind isn’t compartmentalized like that, either. Making connections across these so-called boundaries is at the root of innovation.

Deepak Iyer

"When systems are in equilibrium, they do not appear to change over time," says Professor Deepak Iyer, physics & astronomy. "But most systems found in nature are not in equilibrium. Weather systems are a perfect example and, as you might suspect, they are very difficult to model."  

Iyer does much of his modeling on computers because his research focuses primarily on non-equilibrium phenomena within systems of extremely minute particles, like atoms or electrons. "Picture electrons moving in a line," he says. "Using numerical tools, I study what happens when they attract, repel, pass through each other completely and even cascade like dominoes — all within a one-dimensional system." These processes can be observed in an atomic and optical-physics lab, he says, and they're amazing things to see.

Physicists only started tackling these problems in earnest about 15 years ago because that's when advances in computing and experimental techniques made it possible. To date, only a few models are completely understood. "The complexity of the problem grows exponentially when you're dealing with quantum mechanics," he says. "Even a system with 20 particles interacting with each other is too complex to study in full detail."

Iyer structures his classes to be as interactive as possible. "I know students learn the material best by working with it, not by hearing me lecture," he says, "and a lot of education research backs this feeling up." He requires his students to create an in-class blog where they discuss what they've learned and defend their positions under the peer review of classmates. "Effective writing isn't always stressed strongly enough in the sciences," he says. "I tell my students they have to learn to write well for the scientific community and be able to describe their methodology to a non-science-minded friend — someone who wouldn't understand the jargon we use with each other."

Iyer practices this approach himself in Energy & Sustainability, a lab-science physics course designed for non-science majors. "I have students from all majors in there," he says. "That's the beauty of a liberal arts institution." He points out that his own undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering, not physics. "I'm interested in everything," he laughs. "And I believe discipline boundaries are artificial. Philosophy and neuroscience aren't separate fields. The mind isn't compartmentalized like that, either. Making connections across these so-called boundaries is at the root of innovation."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015 

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