Oct. 10, 2002 – Dusty plasma?
Many people in the Virgin Islands might say, "What's that, something like Sahara dust?" A small number of knowledgeable engineers and tech business types might say, "Oh yes, that's research a few physicists are working on. We can get some great new products out of it." A very small number of scientists might say, "Oh yes, that's a little branch in physics having to do with gases and microgravity and small particles of solid matter; those guys study it in labs."
One of an even smaller number of physicists who actually do study dusty plasma says, "I don't care what they do with the technology; I just love to do experiments with dusty plasma and see what develops." Virgin Islander Edward E. Thomas Jr. goes on to say, "In the lab, I see things that nobody else has ever seen or done before. What a rush!"
Thomas, son of the chief executive officer of The West Indian Co., has been home in the islands for a few days, finalizing arrangements for the 10th Workshop on the Physics of Dusty Plasma, to be held next June at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort. Some 80 scientists and 20 engineers are expected to attend the conference, he says, adding that colleagues have been after him for a number of years to arrange the national conference here.
The field is a fast-growing one. The initial workshop in San Diego in 1986 was attended by 10 scientists, each of whom felt that he alone was working on this topic. But this soon changed as industrial implications moved from astrophysics into semiconductors. In 1990, between 30 and 40 papers were published on the topic; in 2001, there were 400. This year's third international conference, held in Durban, South Africa, was attended by about 125 scientists and engineers; more than 200 "talks" were presented.
The results of experiments are frequently taken by engineers who develop marketable products. In this field, there have been significant implications in astrophysics in, for example, National Aeronautics and Space Administration studies of the rings of Saturn and Uranus. Research has also resulted in cheaper methods of producing computer chips and better solar panels, even entire rooftop coverings that function as giant photoactive solar panels.
Core scientists aren't interested in the products, Thomas says; it's the engineers who pick up the developed technology and run to their companies and to the Patent Office.
He holds up a tiny blue-light keychain flashlight - "It's blue light, not a white light with a blue bulb," he explains - that intrigues his small son and friends. "It took 20 years of research to find a way to get green light and blue light," he observes. Sometimes, he says, 10 hours of data may take a year or more to analyze.
Inspiration at CAHS
Thomas, a product of St. Thomas elementary schools and four years at Charlotte Amalie High School, has long been interested in what sort of children grow up to become scientists and in attracting more youngsters to science fields.
In his own case, when he was in eighth or ninth grade, a summer spent on Cape Cod with a marine biologist uncle who took him to hang out in his lab sparked the interest. Returning from that experience, he landed with two CAHS science teachers - Austin Walters and Howard Gumbs - who fanned the spark. Walters taught physics, and "he was my inspiration," Thomas says. Walters was at the time teaching physics at the University of the Virgin Islands, too, and he used a college textbook for his course at CAHS; so, Thomas reached college with a leg up in training and knowledge. When he visits home, he always looks up those two teachers, along with another, Irose Payne, and now-Principal Jeannette Smith Barry.
Although he loved science fiction in books and on television (one of his favorite quotes is from "Babylon 5": "Be terrified and relieved that we have not explained it all"), he credits his uncle and his CAHS teachers with steering him to science.
Thomas at 34 is a tenured associate professor of physics at Auburn University in Alabama, where he earned his doctorate. He also is the coordinator of the on-campus Plasma Sciences Laboratory, which he says is a dream situation for him. He sets up and supervises the lab work of three graduate students and five undergraduates and is about to hire a postdoctoral scientist because of the intense workload at the thinking level.
In order to obtain funding, the lab performs other research not related to dusty plasma; in his lab, there's an important instability experiment going forward. "You're trained as a scientist to be flexible scientifically," he says, "to be a businessman, salesperson, manager, and that way you get grants which allow you to do the best possible science."
Creating future scientists
Thomas feels strongly that a community must support its science teachers if there is any expectation of producing future scientists. This includes salary, materials and equipment, and continuing education on the part of teachers. And, he says, it must begin at the elementary level.
In addition to his teaching and research work, he also coordinates a high school internship and teaching opportunities summer research program and is faculty adviser for a professional society of physics students.
When school groups visit his laboratory, he says, it's the children from 6th grade down that are really interested, with first and second graders being the best, most "hands on," most curious and excitable. By junior high age, he says, "something happens to kids that suppresses that curiosity — puberty, peer pressure, something. By high school it's too late" to turn them toward the sciences. Communities and schools need to recognize that and plan accordingly, he says, adding that it takes "political will."
The environment of the Virgin Islands, he observes, is a "natural laboratory," covering everything from marine biological sciences to trash disposal, fisheries and solar and wind power. "Science is living and breathing," he says. "Early teachers can generate great enthusiasm."
When a high school senior graduates No. 1 in his small class, he feels he's tops. But then he enrolls in a college course where all 30 students were No. 1 in their high school. They cannot all continue to be No. 1. As a college professor, Thomas feels some sadness that in his teaching he must cull out some who can't continue to be No. 1's, but he says it is necessary to teach to the ones who will become the future scientists.
For more on Thomas's views about science education in the Virgin Islands, see his detailed analysis in the 2001 Source Op-Ed article "What's needed to raise those science scores".
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