georgejones - physics

Interview with Physicist George Jones

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Meet a Mentor is a weekly series to help you get to know your wonderful Mentors better.

Constructive questions and comments are welcome!

Today we meet: George Jones

Give us a brief history of George Jones.

On my mother’s side, my roots in Canada have been traced back to the late 1600s; on my father’s side, I am first generation Canadian. Neither of my parents attended high school.

My father’s family moved from Wales to a farm in Ontario when he was thirteen, and, instead of going to school, he opted to work on the farm. My mother’s mother said that her first girl to finish grade eight had to stay home to help with her large depression-era family. My mother excelled at and loved school, and she skipped a grade. She had a sister a year older than her, but her sister had to repeat a failed grade, so my mother ended up a grade ahead of her sister. My grandmother did not make an exception, so, effectively, my mother was punished for doing well at school.

When I went to school in southern Ontario, Ontario had an extra year of high school. After high school, I couldn’t decide what I wanted do, so I went to university part-time, taking physics and mathematics courses. I got a degree in physics, and I took many more courses in pure mathematic than were required. Because of all this, I started grad school in physics somewhat late at age 27, but I did manage to get an NSERC scholarship during my Ph.D., and to finish in about the average amount of time. I am very grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor, with whom I had many interesting discussion about developments in physics, and to the chair of physics, who let my use three graduate courses in pure mathematics to help meet the course number requirement for my physics Ph.D.

I have never been particularly interested in doing research, but I enjoy following research at a technical level, and I greatly enjoy teaching. I have taught, either as an instructor or as an assistant professor, at universities in five Canadian provinces, one U.S. state, and one U.S. Territory. In physics, engineering, and mathematics, I have taught 30 different lecture courses and the lab components of 15 different courses, from Physics and Society for non-science majors to Advanced Quantum Mechanics for grad students to (analog) labs for second-year Electrical Engineering students.

Currently, I am the Senior Lab Instructor (a faculty position) for the physics department at the University of Northern British Columbia. I came here as an assistant professor on an eight-month sabbatical replacement position, and it seems that I am going to stick around. Somewhat ironic, given my theoretical and mathematical tastes, but I really enjoy my work, my interactions with students and physics and math colleagues, and the fact that I get to teach some lecture courses.

Favourite campus: UNBC. Favourite city in which I have lived and taught: Saint John, New Brunswick. Most personable students: St Croix campus of the University of the Virgin Islands. Favourite course that I have taught: an introductory course on black holes at WVU that had first-year physics and calculus as prerequisites.

Before getting married, I lived for 19 years as a bachelor without housemates. I recently mentioned this to a friend, who instantly and perceptively replied “That must have been hard on your wife!” My wife has four degrees, each from a different Canadian university, and she teaches physics and math at the local community college.

Beside physics and math, my wife and I both enjoy following current events and watching murder-mystery movies. Our six-year-old daughter (I am an old geezer father) has already developed an interest in news. A couple of weeks ago, our daughter admonished my wife and me for talking during supper because she couldn’t hear the news on the radio! We don’t have a TV.

I also enjoy classic rock, watching sports, and watching movies from the 1930s.

How did you become interested in physics?

When I was very young, the space race piqued my interest in science and astronomy. Later, in grades 8 through 10, I had quite an interest in electronics. In grade 10 math, Euclidean geometry and proof absolutely entranced me. About the same time, I read an article on the expanding universe, which introduced me to general relativity, and I saw a BBC (via PBS) show on quarks.

What parts of your physics education/training were difficult and how did you overcome them?

Jumping through hoops. Recently at a family gathering, one of my siblings said “George didn’t march to the beat of a different drummer; he broke the drums and the drumsticks.” As I got older, I realized that jumping through just enough hoops is an essential life skill.

What topic in General relativity and cosmology are you most closely watching?

Microwave imaging of black holes, which should happen in the next few years, and which should be an amazing strong-field test of general relativity. Cosmology in general. One of my favourite passtimes is sitting in Tim Hortons (coffee shop) and drinking tea while working on cosmology. Stephen Weinberg, in his 2008 authoritative book Cosmology, wrote “The new excitement in cosmology came as if on cue for elementary particle physicists. By the 1980s the Standard Model of elementary particles and fields had become well established. Although significant theoretical and experimental work continued, there was now little contact between experiment and new theoretical ideas, and without this contact, particle physics lost much of its liveliness. Cosmology now offered the excitement that particle physicists had experienced in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Can you further explain and tell us why the quote in your signature is important to you and an important issue in today’s world?

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” Samuel Johnson”

I think that this advice is timeless. Follow at least some of your interests. As I mentioned above, sometimes doing someone else’s thing is important, but doing one’s own thing is also important. I first ran into this quote at the start of the Suggested Reading section of Spivak’s Calculus. Later, I read Boswell’s biography of Johnson. The sexist language in the quote is both infuriating and interesting. If I remember correctly, in abstract discussions, Johnson expressed the opinion that females are intellectually inferior, yet when he actually interacted with smart women, he treated them as intellectual equals! I read something very similar in a biography of Stephen Leacock.

How are you involved in amateur astronomy?

I can understand why someone would find astrophotography deeply satisfying, e.g., Russ, but I am interested in visual observing. I have binoculars and an 8-inch scope, both of which I love. Two of my favourite things to observe: open clusters (e.g., Double Cluster, NGC 7789), which, when I view, make me feel like I am traveling through space in a spaceship; shadow transits on the clouds of Jupiter. I occasionally set up my scope in a mall parking lot and give views of the Moon and planets to the public. In Saint John, I was a member of a very active and interesting astronomy club.

What are some of your favorite mystery novels and why?

I don’t know why I like mystery novels. When I lived there, there was no bookstore on the tropical island of St. Croix, so I had to buy books from Kmart. Kmart didn’t stock my usual fare, so I started buying mystery novels by Anne Perry. Years and two dozen novels later, I found out the real story behind Anne Perry. When some people find out her story, they stop reading her books, but I still love them. P.D. James is another favourite author of mine. She also has written an interesting non-fiction book about the genre. At a recent library book sale, I picked up a compilation of several novels (the first one was written in 1923!) by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I am very much looking forward to starting in on them. I like many authors.

Favourite murder mystery series that my wife and I enjoy watching: (Inspector) Lewis; Midsomer Murders; The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

If you could have lunch with living physicist, who would it be and why?

Roger Penrose, because he knows so much physics and math, and Freeman Dyson, because I think that he would have lots of good stories to tell.

Thanks for participating George Jones! Next interview will be posted next Wednesday!

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