This summer, Physics Professor Jan Tobochnik received an email from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), honoring his numerous contributions to the field of physics over the past thirty years. This past week the Kalamazoo College professor officially received the 2017 Hans Christian Oersted Medal—an award previously granted to prestigious physicists including Carl Sagan, Edward Purcell, and Richard Feynman.
“Physics teaches a way of thinking that’s different than other disciplines. It’s a unique combination of taking the tools from mathematics, logic, and problem solving—and putting them all together to look at the world,” said Tobochnik.
He is the second professor from Kalamazoo College to receive this distinguished award. The last recipient was John Hornbeck in 1951. “It is significant, that in the 81 years of the Medal’s existence, a school as small as K College has had two professors admitted to the ranks of its recipients,” said Tobochnik.
The professor is the Editor for the American Journal of Physics, an author of a series of physics textbooks, and a strong promoter of computational physics education at the undergraduate level. He will present a lecture titled “The Changing Face of Physics and the Students who take Physics” at the national AAPT meeting in February.
“It’s a two-pronged talk about how what people do with physics is changing rapidly. Part of that is using computation methods, and the undergraduate curriculum should reflect that,” shared Tobochnik.
Tobochnik’s research is in computational physics, which utilizes digital devices to create models of systems. His computational work focuses on the mechanism of melting, a subject he was first interested in at the start of his physics career.
“It was the Sputnik era and everyone was doing it,” said Tobochnik, referring to his area of research. “I was really drawn to a subfield of physics called critical phenomena, which is the study of phase transitions.”
The Nobel Prize in Physics this year went to three physicists’ work in the research of phase transitions in two-dimensional models. Tobochnik was one of the first researchers to validate these physicists work through the use of his computational simulations. The Professor hopes that by receiving this award he will bring recognition to the college and the physics department.