Cardinal Cadence - December 2011
Making physics real
As a child, George Irwin wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up, and in college he set out to be an electrical engineer. Instead, he became a physicist and educator—much to the benefit of the Lamar University students he has taught and mentored over the past 15 years in the lab and on reduced-gravity aircraft.
The Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, sponsored by ExxonMobil and hosted by the Lamar Faculty Senate, celebrated its 25th anniversary Nov. 7 with Irwin’s lecture, “Nuclear Education in the Nuclear Age.” A Lamar faculty member since 1997, Irwin is an associate professor and interim program director in the Department of Physics, as well as radiation safety officer for the university.
“Nuclear physics is an area of science with great importance in the world today,” Irwin said. “From nuclear weapons aimed at destroying entire cities to nuclear medicine aimed at destroying cancer cells, nuclear physics invokes some of our deepest fears and highest hopes for the future.”
His lecture covered basic concepts of physics, employing show-and-tell, on-stage experiments and humor. Irwin shared more than 25 years of professional expertise—from working as a scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory to teaching Lamar students about gamma ray spectroscopy in his physics lab and leading teams of students in NASA’s zero-gravity flight education program.
“Dr. Irwin is known as one of Lamar University’s top lecturers,” two previous Distinguished Faculty Lecturers—Jim Jordan and Jim Westgate—said in nominating him for the honor. “His professional skills are at their best in the laboratory, where he encourages his students to find answers to scientific questions using hands-on, inquiry-based exploration and learning.”
Jordan is chair and professor, and Westgate is university professor, both of earth and space sciences. Irwin was a “star” in last year’s JASON Project video “infinite potential,” viewed on the LU campus by more than 7,300 science students, they said, and has been the recipient or co-recipient of more than $200,000 in grant funding at Lamar.
When Irwin arrived at Lamar from Idaho State University, it was love at first sight.
“I liked the department. I liked the people in the department, and I liked the way people did things here,” Irwin said. “Joe Pizzo and others were very big on classroom demonstrations which is something I’m also big on myself. “I enjoy making physics real for people, instead of drawing a flat, chalkboard picture or even projecting a flat Power Point picture. It’s still flat, it’s not real, and physics happens in real life. So having real apparatuses in the lecture hall that students can see is, I think, an important way of making concepts clear to people.
“I enjoyed that about the way people taught here at Lamar. There is a long tradition of excellent instruction in physics at Lamar.”
And so it remains today. Irwin was the fourth faculty member in the physics department, which now has three tenured faculty members and one tenure-track faculty member, three instructors and three support-staff members.
“I’ve had a blast during those years,” Irwin said. “For the most part, I’ve been provided the support I needed to pursue my career and to pursue my interests.”
One of Irwin’s passions is to take old equipment and make it work. “That’s why you look around my lab and see a lot of old stuff, because we don’t throw anything away. We save everything, it seems, for decades.”
One example is an X-ray machine used for crystal diffraction—an apparatus that is at least 30 years old and probably older. “It has the cutest little X-ray tube,” Irwin said. “I found this thing in a cabinet, and it didn’t work. It sat for years. A few years ago, I took it out, messed with it a little bit with a student, and, what do you know, we got it working.
He added: “You can still buy the exact, same thing—the same model. It’s about a $30,000 item. I took what was mostly junk and turned it into functioning equipment.”
A highlight of Irwin’s Lamar career has been joining Jordan in leading teams of students on experiments aboard NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft, known as the “weightless wonder,” at Ellington Air Field in Houston.
“The NASA projects have been a lot of fun,” he said. “They’ve been a lot of work for both the students and the faculty, but the rewards have been great.”
And, Irwin said, “We’ve done some interesting experiments. The most recent one had to do with what happens in an orbiting laboratory like the international space station if you have a spill. Water floats around in droplets, and it can get into the electronics, the machinery, and that can be very bad. So the question arises: How can you possibly clean that up?
“There are lots of ways of doing it, but our way was novel and had to do with using a high-voltage electrostatic generator—a Van de Graaff—which we use for demonstrations. We get students to charge up to 100,000 volts or so and have their hair stand on end and things like that. The same device, it turns out, we demonstrated, will attract floating droplets of water by polarizing them and drawing the droplets in by the electrostatic field gradient.”
Irwin hopes to take the experiment to its next stage and develop a “spill-cleanup gizmo” based on a safe way of making high voltage at low current. “We think that might have some actual application, possibly on a future space station experiment,” Irwin said.
Another experiment—also with potential applications—focused on tether recoil. “We had a tethered payload, like one coming off the space shuttle or some other tethered satellite,” Irwin said. “With the tension, the question arises of what happens if it snaps and recoils and tangles up the other end. If that other end is a manned spacecraft, that poses a serious issue. So one of our experiments had to do with how can we quantify that recoil and what can be done to mitigate it.”
When he was a scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory, Irwin worked on one project that involved monitoring nuclear reactors for plutonium and another using gamma rays in the cooling pool of a reactor used to store spent fuel rods to excite meta-stable nuclear levels called isomeric states in indium and cadmium samples.
And, Irwin said, “One of the most interesting things I ever did goes back to my doctoral dissertation at Idaho State, having to do with spectroscopy of magnetic materials called spin glasses, which occur only at extremely low, cryogenic temperatures.
“I’m not saying it was earth shaking or anything like that, but it was my little, narrow slice of research I consider to be important,” Irwin said. “I don’t know that anybody’s pursued it elsewhere. In fact, one of my goals at Lamar is to prepare my lab with a cryogenic unit and get a new radiation source, so I can pick up on that research.”
A native of Holland, Ohio, and current resident of Nederland, Irwin earned a bachelor of science in physics from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a master of science and doctor of philosophy from The Ohio University. Irwin’s daughter, Sarah Rose, 19, is a Nederland High School graduate and Lamar student.
Among Irwin’s interests outside the classroom and lab is his 1961 Buick La Sabre, which he acquired a decade ago. He enjoys relaxing with his aquariums, tending to houseplants, wood-carving, drawing and playing pool.
From Jim Jordan’s standpoint, Irwin need not go off campus to have fun. The two have worked together on reduced-gravity flights since 1998, as well as on other projects to enhance the physics and geology departments.
They often shop for parts and supplies in hardware, sports and toy stores. “In the toy department of Walmart, I remember once he said, ‘It’s all physics.’ He’ll see an item and say, ‘This is cool, this is super cool.’ He’s just like a kid in a toy store. One of the biggest joys I’ve ever had is shopping with George.”
Jordan added: “If you’re in his lab—which I’ve been in quite a bit—it’s full of toys—things he would regard as toys, things that bring joy to him. I think it’s really telling about George the fun he has with the things he does.”