Physics for Everyone

By Emily Clark ′15

October: the season of sweaters, chai lattes and . . . flying pumpkins? For students at Rhodes College, that combination is not ridiculous. In fact, it’s pretty typical.

While many colleges across the country share in fall weather and warm beverages, the level of activity and outreach of the Rhodes chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) is unique. The Rhodes SPS has won an Outstanding Chapter Award for community outreach from SPS National for 14 consecutive years, since the 1999-2000 school year.

SPS, overseen by the American Institute for Physics, is the only national organization for physics students, professionals, and enthusiasts. Nationwide, they provide outreach, research, networking, and help for physics teachers. There are more than 700 collegiate chapters around the country, and the only requirement for forming a chapter is student interest in physics. SPS also oversees Sigma Pi Sigma, the national physics honor society, which has had more than 75,000 inductees throughout its history.

Catherine Miller, president of the Rhodes club, says, “Personally, I think our chapter is different because of our size and how much we do. We have multiple events monthly, most of which are either public or in conjunction with other student groups, and we try really hard to maintain a strong campus presence.” The Rhodes vision is also incorporated into the club’s daily activities. SPS secretary Marshall Peyton explains, “The Rhodes motto of ‘Truth, Loyalty, and Service’ is embodied throughout our college’s curriculum and tradition, and I believe that those three values are likewise the pillars of our chapter. We try to find truth through science, to seek loyalty in our members, and to teach the importance of service in our outreach.” This year, in addition to weekly open meetings and monthly star parties open to the whole community, the club is hosting the annual math/physics picnic, an Evergreen open house, an eclipse viewing party, the Pumpkin Drop (combo-ing this year with the Burrow Haunted House), a Demo Fest on Memphis Day, Physics Caroling, and some other spontaneous events in between.

The goal is to make the somewhat intimidating world of physics more accessible to the whole community. “Outreach (we hope) helps make physics seem a little less like some elite impossible subject, and hopefully it also sparks a little interest in the scientific world,” explains Catherine. Public Relations Officer Jordan Meyer echoes that sentiment. “If you show a child a physics trick, they are always fascinated, intrigued, and want to learn more. Unfortunately, science has gotten a bad reputation and large numbers of adults see it as boring and an obligation in school. Bringing physics into the Rhodes community is important so that we can help to rekindle that excitement and interest in students and so they can understand its importance in the world around them.”

For example, at the end of this month, Rhodes SPS is pairing up with several other campus organizations to turn Burrow Hall into a haunted house and host the Pumpkin Drop festival in Diehl plaza. Jordan reveals that this year, “there will be more slime, fire, and pumpkins being smashed than ever before.” Opportunities like this allow SPS to share their love of science by giving back to the Rhodes community. The club also visits area schools to demonstrate fun, age-appropriate physics experiments.

Interested in the club? Members want you to come to a meeting! The weekly gatherings feature socializing, networking, news, and pizza, and always end with a physics demonstration.  As Catherine says, “Our doors are always open (at least with a fob), and you absolutely don’t need to know anything about physics to join. We’re just a group of nerds who hang out, eat pizza, and like 80s music a little too much.”