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By Design: Full Renovation to Transform Rhodes Tower

The observatory atop Rhodes Tower, circa 1975.

When students arrived for classes on September 16, 1968, there had risen in the east a brand new star in the firmament over Southwestern′s Collegiate Gothic campus: a customized six-story tower dedicated to the study of optical physics. Part of the brand-new Frazier Jelke Science Center, the tower was a visual expression of the growing national excitement over the sciences, which had been fueled in part by the space program and the race to the moon. Fast-forward some 40-plus years and a different type of excitement surrounds the physics facility.

Today, Rhodes Tower joins the rest of the Frazier Jelke Science Center as the core of a planned renovation project that, upon conclusion, will usher in a new era of scientific endeavors, made possible by the most advanced laboratories and classrooms available on any campus. The renovations are being funded in part by a $4.4 million grant from the Plough Foundation, awarded in August, and will begin in May 2014. Securing ongoing funding for the project is a major part of Rhodes′ current capital campaign.

Built Like an Aircraft Carrier

The actual structures, seen during construction, occupy the heart of the campus’ academic core.

At the 1968 opening convocation, President David Alexander dedicated the $2.5 million Frazier Jelke Science Center, which represented a three-fold expansion of space for the sciences on campus. The three major fields—biology, physics, and chemistry—had all shared space in Kennedy Hall since the 1920s. "The Frazier Jelke Science Center is the realization of a dream four decades old," the Southwestern News (the predecessor of Rhodes magazine) proclaimed in an article titled "Science Center is High Wide and Handsome."

Anchored by the existing Kennedy Hall on the west, the science complex included 89,250 square feet for biology (the portion below grade), physics (the sixstory tower on the east), and mathematics (Ohlendorf), leaving Kennedy for the chemistry department. Much of the buzz was about the wonders in the new tower. A "coelostat" (pronounced seal-uh-stat) allowed students to observe sunspots and solar flares through a series of mirrors placed in a vertical shaft running from the rooftop of the tower into an interior room on the second floor of the physics building. Students constructed their own "spectrometer," a tool for analyzing the light reflected from a planet or beamed by a star, saving the college some $30,000 by building it themselves. Some of the new departmental equipment was so sensitive, it could register vibrations from the elevator or from traffic on North Parkway. Most amazing of all were the twin observatories on the roof, which made Southwestern the largest star-gazing facility in the south. The observatory featured both a student telescope for experimenting and a research telescope for faculty use.

Hallam Boyd, president of the philanthropic Frazier Jelke Foundation, was instrumental in securing an initial gift of $500,000 to construct the new complex. In 1965, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission exceeded that amount with their largest single construction grant, $593,748. The Ford Foundation supplied another $1.9 million.

Perhaps because it was the only building on campus with two names, many students believed "Frazier Jelke" honored two scientists from the college′s Clarksville era. "Oh heavens no," says Fritz Stauffer, retired associate professor of physics (1964- 1990). "No scientist would have had that kind of money in the ′60s."

Stauffer was so excited about the prospect of teaching physics at Southwestern, he took a cut in pay from his job as engineer for Westinghouse in Baltimore. He noted the new facilities were "twice as big" as those at Johns Hopkins University, where Stauffer studied and worked in the ′50s, having finished a master of science degree in physics at Bucknell University in 1952. "Many people are in awe of physics," he said. "But it′s not so much a matter of brains as it is a matter of interest."

Among the new bells and whistles in Rhodes Tower were a machine shop, an electronics shop, an optics shop, and a complete collection of photographic portraits of Nobel Prize winners for physics, among them Albert Einstein, Pierre and Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, and Donald Glaser, who developed the "bubble chamber" after observing the behavior of bubbles in a glass of beer. Even the offi ce equipment was designed for physics. Lynda Gayle Teague Deacon ′69 worked for a year after graduation as the departmental secretary in the new building. "I had a brand new IBM Selectric with the fl ying ball. One of my jobs was to type faculty research papers, and the professor of astronomy would write these astronomy equations that could last for pages and pages. You had to start typing in the middle of the line and count back to the margin so the type was centered on the page. There was a different fl ying ball for each task, with Greek symbols, physics symbols, and mathematics symbols, and still another with parentheses, stars, and triangles," recalls Deacon. "Sometimes it would take me a whole day to type up one page of equations and I would have no idea what they meant. Then the astronomer would come in the next day and say, ‘I′ve changed the equation. Now everything that was an X is a Y.′"

The twin observatory domes and the exterior design of the physics building differentiate it from its neighbors. Although reflecting the stunning architecture of Palmer Hall and Kennedy Hall, Rhodes Tower lacks the many architectural angles and adornments that make Collegiate Gothic so arresting. But its box-like structure came about intentionally. Explains Stauffer, with optical physics (the behavior of light), ambient light from any direct source could skew the results of the exacting experiments the students did. Therefore, on the east side, windows admit light into only the stairwells, while on the west side, windows illuminate faculty offi ces or classrooms.

The building′s interior was equally quirky. Dr. Jack Taylor envisioned it that way. Taylor (d. 2012) graduated from Southwestern in 1944 and returned to join the faculty in 1956 at the invitation of his mentor, Dr. Peyton Nalle Rhodes. Taylor taught physics until his retirement in 1992. In his History of the Department of Physics, he wrote: "I would like to take this opportunity to state for the record that Peyton Rhodes, who was then president, gave the Physics staff an almost free hand in the design of the Physics Tower from a systems point of view. Another way of putting this might be to say that the design of a physics building is too important to trust to an architect." Having served at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. during World War II, Taylor applied the concepts he learned there to the physics building. The original blueprints were reconfi gured, and the interior design pushed in the direction of less Collegiate Gothic, more aircraft carrier.

"It (the tower) has six stories, including one below ground level, and, in cross section, is similar to an aircraft carrier," Taylor wrote. "The toilets, stairwells, elevator, pipe shafts, vertical duct systems, etc., have all been located on one side in what would correspond to the island on an aircraft carrier . . . This width conforms generally with the other buildings on the campus, all of which are of Collegiate Gothic type." Taylor had little interest in frills. "What have washrooms to do with science? Nothing," Taylor told the Commercial Appeal. "So we put them out of the way."

In 1981, the college dedicated the tower to former president Rhodes, one of the college′s two presidents who were physicists (the other being the college′s very first president, William May Stewart). Dr. Rhodes was brought to campus in 1926 to head up the physics department by then President Charles Diehl, himself a physics major in college, and went on to take Diehl′s place as college president in 1949. In 1984, the college was renamed in his honor.

Many physics-related college names pepper the campus landscape, but they are not the department′s only brush with fame. Even the occasional celebrity would drop by, recalled Stauffer, whose other passion besides physics was baseball. (Stauffer Field was named to pay honor to his coaching years, which lasted from 1968 to 1977.) "I was going up the stairs one day, when down comes Jack Taylor with actor William Shatner. Shatner had come to check out the observatory for some project, but I don′t think anything ever came of it."

Positrons & Pedagogy

Newton′s Law is still Newton′s Law, but the teaching of science has changed since the 1960s. At Rhodes, enormous changes have taken place, especially in the last decade, and the physics department has responded accordingly.

Overcrowding of current science center facilities has meant utilizing the wide hallways of Frazier Jelke for refrigerated storage.

Since the 1960s, the student population has doubled and the number of students studying some area of science has tripled. About 30 percent of Rhodes students indicate interest in the health professions and around 40 percent plan to major in the natural sciences. As part of Rhodes′ Foundations curriculum, all students must take a course focused on scientific approaches to the natural world, so improvements to the science facilities affect, literally, every single student.</p> <p>The sciences have adapted in many other ways to the changes of the past 40 years. Through the addition of ">

"I want the students to understand how acoustic instruments make music," says Hoffmeister. Every student is required to make an original musical instrument, write a technical paper explaining the physics behind it, and then play it as their final exam. "Some of the ‘music′ you wouldn′t necessarily recognize as musical," he notes, but the instrument has to be playable.

Medical physics is also a newer course of study, reflecting the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science teaching at Rhodes. A PET scan shows how organs and tissues are working through the use of positron emission tomography. Explains Hoffmeister, "I tell students the only widespread application I know of antimatter, which was once the stuff of science fiction, is in the hospital. The ‘P′ in PET scan stands for positron, which is the antimatter equivalent of the electron."

"Colleges are expected to involve students in research, and it′s a challenge to do that with a facility from 1968," says Hoffmeister. But as a testament to the dedication of both students and faculty, despite the obstacles, Rhodes remains at the forefront of student research. The Rhodes Chapter of the Society of Physics Students has earned recognition from the national society for some 15 consecutive years. The group builds a moon buggy and participates in NASA′s Great Moon Buggy Race each year and conducts demonstrations during Rites of Spring. Through the department′s Memphysics class, taught by Dr. Shubho Banerjee, physics students go into the city′s schools to demonstrate physics and raise awareness of the discipline to young learners. And, you have not experienced Christmas until you are caroled by Rhodes physics students, who have reworded holiday classics with physics-themed lyrics delivered with heart-warming zest. Drawings of the optical equipment included in the newly constructed physics tower helped illustrate the extent to which the 1968 science center brought Rhodes into the then-modern era.

No More Cookbook Experiments

One of the more timeless features of October on campus is the annual pumpkin drop, conducted from the rooftop of Rhodes Tower. Students perform an experiment involving a frozen pumpkin, tremendous height, and curious onlookers below. The point of the experiment is to measure any tribo luminescence at the moment of impact. Tribo luminescence, Hoffmeister explains, is the same effect you get if you bite down on a wintergreen breath mint before a mirror in a darkened room—you may see a few blue green sparks.

In the pumpkin drop, theory suggests that if you freeze a pumpkin thoroughly with liquid nitrogen to about -200 degrees F, when the pumpkin shatters, it should produce light, or tribo luminescence.

So far, students at Rhodes have not recorded any detectable luminescence at the point of impact, although it is possible ambient light could make it hard to see. However, repeating the experiment despite a consistent negative result has become a campus tradition. The pumpkin drop exemplifi es the kind of creative, collaborative experiment that has come to characterize the student experience of the sciences at Rhodes.

"In the 1970s, the teaching model was ‘cookbook′ experiments," explains John Olsen, associate dean of Academic Affairs and a biologist by specialty. Industry standard back then was for students to replicate results that had been demonstrated in the lab many times over, just like following a recipe. "We knew what the outcome was going to be," Olsen says. "Now, with faculty guidance, students design their own experiments. Science is a much more open-ended discussion."

Olsen adds that, "It also means that a lab that was designed to produce a certain set of results is obsolete."

Students no longer work side-by-side in pairs reproducing predetermined data; rather, three or four students may share high-tech resources at a "pod" or collaborate on the construction of a moon buggy.

The interdisciplinary sciences have also led to the creation of four new majors since 2005: biochemistry and molecular biology, neuroscience, environmental sciences, and environmental studies. These disciplines reflect the more collaborative aspects of current and future education in the sciences that eschew the old "lab partner" model for project-oriented and experimental lab research.

"We give the students amazing experiences, but the laboratory spaces were not designed to maximize the kinds of technical and scientific equipment that are in the current labs," Olsen says. "We realized we had a mismatch between modern pedagogy and dated facilities."

Members of the Plough Foundation joined President William E. Troutt and members of the Rhodes community to celebrate the foundation’s $4.4 million grant to help fund science facilities improvements. Sharing the special moment were L-R: Bob Wallace, Mike Carpenter, Johnny Moore ‘88, Diane Rudner P’07, and Dr. William E. Troutt.

According to Olsen, Rhodes has already created a conceptual bridge to the "interdisciplinary hub" idea, with Frazier Jelke at the center and Kennedy, Ohlendorf Hall, and Rhodes Tower as the spokes. "It′s already true that Frazier Jelke has become a hub in an intellectual sense, in a way that shows the interconnectedness of the sciences."

The next step in the process is to renovate the science center buildings to mirror new pedagogy and carry the college into the still-young 21st century. Overall, the goal for science facility improvement is $42 million, which will fund first-class, state-ofthe- art labs and classrooms for all disciplines connected to the sciences through planned renovations and, ultimately, construction of a new science building.

Some of these improvements may seem a long way off, but in Olsen′s view, they are light years closer than they have ever been: "To those of us who have been here a long time, the renovation was something we′d do in the distant future. I′m excited that this is going to come true within the next couple of years. We are going to make something happen in the sciences."

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with the words of Jack Taylor: "It has been my experience since coming to Southwestern that if you have a worthy project, or idea, that there is very likely someone somewhere who will be willing to give you support."