Common passion unites diverse minds in Physics Journal Club - The University of Tulsa
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Common passion unites diverse minds in Physics Journal Club

Presenter in front of projectorIn the heart of Tulsa, a diverse and eager group of TU students and faculty, area high school students and teachers, and local lifelong learners convene to discuss the latest progress in physics. The TU Physics Journal Club has met almost every second Tuesday of the month during the academic year since 1997, totaling some 200 meetings.

A typical evening consists of discussing two previously distributed articles. These meetings are open to the public in the Student Union and last from 6:30-8:30 p.m., commencing with a free pizza dinner.

At the helm of this club is Applied Professor of Physics Jerry McCoy. Assisting him in leading these discussions is Applied Associate Professor of Physics Shawn Jackson.

Humble beginnings

McCoy’s inspiration for the physics club came after he attended a similar meeting organized by the University of Oklahoma medical school, offering his insights into statistical methods used in the journal articles under review. “From that involvement, it occurred to me that I could create a similar experience for TU physics students,” he said.

In fall 1997, McCoy was asked to teach a class for first-year TU physics students and saw a chance to test his idea. “I wanted these students to learn how fascinating physics is and how fun in can be to discuss the latest progress in physics,” he explained, “but in a more casual setting away from the classroom.”

Photo of Jerry McCoy smiling brown and white hair with blue eyes wearing a bowtie in Keplinger.

The first club meetings were held in various faculty members’ homes. With only eight students and one or two faculty members, the group was small. “At that time, I was responsible for recruiting physics majors, so I began inviting prospective students to join the fun,” McCoy said. “As time progressed, more students joined, and those who had graduated continued attending.”

Before long, the club moved its meetings to campus to accommodate a growing crowd. “Four years after we started, it dawned on me how successful the club was becoming. The venue we were using started to overflow, and some attendees would stand on chairs outside the room to see and hear what was going on,” McCoy explained.

Tulsa residents with an interest in physics began joining, then local high school teachers offered extra credit to their students for attending. “At its height, 250 to 300 students were joining us each meeting,” McCoy said.

Welcoming all

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the TU Physics Journal Club is its ability to attract regular attendees who are not directly involved in the field of physics. “We have had professionals such as doctors, attorneys, veterinarians, engineers, pastors, and retired miliary personnel join us,” McCoy said.

Among the notable members is Doug Mann, a prominent attorney in the Tulsa area who has faithfully attended club meetings for 15 years, driven solely by his fascination with physics. Similarly, Dr. Eddie Abbott, a 1972 TU engineering physics alumnus, also attends the meetings regularly. Even retired Army Col. Ray Bachlor, who earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from TU in 1960, has made the club a part of his life for years. At 96, he holds the distinction of being the eldest member.

The TU Physics Journal Club’s youngest member is Jonah Brandenburgh, who has been attending club meetings since he was 8. Now 17, Brandenburgh is a junior at TU. The continuous involvement of diverse members highlights the club’s ability to captivate minds young and old and incite an ongoing pursuit of knowledge.

Future visions

Speaker in front of projectorMcCoy’s goals for the club include exposing TU physics students to the breadth of physics subdisciplines beyond the classroom: “This will help inform our students’ decisions regarding which sub-discipline they may choose to enter as a profession.”

The club also aims to give students experience in preparing and delivering technical presentations, keep local alumni involved in the program, recruit prospective students from area high schools, serve local physics educators by providing unofficial continued education, and engage community members who have an interest in physics.

“One thing that has been incredibly successful,” McCoy noted, “is having authors of our articles attend meetings via teleconference.” For example, the deputy director of science for the Voyager space mission spoke at the club’s gatherings as well as the director of engineering for Breakthrough Starshot. “We also had a mathematical physicist who solved one of the 10 most important questions in physics attend,” McCoy said. “I hope to continue welcoming these distinguished members of the physics community to our meetings.”

The club went on hiatus during the pandemic. When they picked back up, attendance hovered around 40. The first meeting of this academic year, however, drew more than 80 people. The smaller group did make for better participation and discussions, yet McCoy is eager to watch the numbers rise.

“The best kind of attendees are those who are genuinely interested in physics,” McCoy said, “and I wouldn’t mind seeing anywhere from 100 to 150 members at some point in the future.”

If you foster a love of physics or want to nurture your curiosity on the subject, join a TU Physics Journal Club meeting, held every second Tuesday of the month. Check out the variety of engaging events happening across the TU community!