Alumni in science: Guy Geyer Marcus ’13

[Guy G. Marcus ’13]
Image courtesy of Stefan Kramel

Aditi Kini '13 talks science with Guy Geyer Marcus ’13. At Wesleyan, Guy studied Physics, Science in Society, and Informatics & Modeling. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with high honors in Physics this past May. He is about to start working on his PhD in Theoretical Physics at Johns Hopkins University. In this interview, Guy discusses Paul traps, antimatter, entangled states and the conference as an equalizer.

Guy has a formidable resume. He’s received many prestigious awards, he’s taken all the hard courses, he’s on track to becoming the next big thing in physics. On paper, he’s frighteningly clever and sure to be intimidating.

In person, however, Guy is sweet. He is a great conversationalist. He’s easy to laugh. He effortlessly weaves discourse on physics and philosophy together. While he embodies the definition of the hard scientist, he also prefers a more humanistic approach to his scholarship. He thinks about science in a context other than science. He studies concepts like quantum chaos and fluid dynamics and, on the side, simultaneously, he analyzes their role in the world.

At Wesleyan, Guy performed research in several areas. He worked in two groups in the Physics department: in fluid dynamics, and in theoretical condensed matter. His most recent publication, which came out in 2012 and was built off his sophomore thesis for the Informatics Certificate, will be closely followed by two new papers, currently in preparation for publication. One of them is based on his senior thesis “Rotational Dynamics of Anisotropic Particles in Turbulence: Measurements of Lagrangian Vorticity and the Effects of Alignment with the Velocity Gradient.” Guy was the President of the Wesleyan Chapter of the Society of Physics Students; they designed physics lessons for the local elementary school. He’s just that kind of student: engaged, excellent and everywhere.

With prestigious awards already under his belt—most recently, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship—Guy graduates from Wesleyan with full steam ahead, all the way to Baltimore for his PhD at Johns Hopkins University.

I sat down to talk with him about his research a few weeks before he graduated.

What kind of research are you involved in?
In Professor Greg Voth’s lab, I measured the rotational dynamics of anisotropic particles in turbulence. We looked at how small particles are carried by turbulent fluid flows. You could think of them as chaotic flows. We used 3D printing to create 30,000 particles with a smallest dimension of 300 microns, and a high-speed camera to track the particles as they move through a large tank of water. Over the past few years, we have developed algorithms to measure their rotation rate along their trajectories.

Video courtesy of Guy Marcus & Stefan Kramel of Professor Greg Voth's Fluid Dynamics Lab

We have provided the first experimental verification of certain predictions about the behavior of particles in turbulence. The biggest breakthrough, however, is in the experimental methodology— we’ve developed new techniques that enable us to probe fundamental properties of turbulence in ways that have not yet been achieved. We’re currently writing this work up for publication.

But that’s not all, is it?
In Professor Reinhold Blümel’s group, I studied a variety of concepts to do with the Paul trap. A Paul trap is a device used to store large numbers of cold atoms—ions, really—and has important current and future applications, from atomic clocks to quantum computing. The most recent Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for some important work done with Paul traps…not to say that our work is at that caliber, but it’s still pretty cool!

In my first project, I looked at how antihydrogen, a type of antimatter, could form in a Paul trap. We had positive results that we eventually published. I’ve also studied how chaos—in the sense that mathematicians and physicists use the word—can arise in a quantum system and its semi-quantum analogue, as well as how vortex structure and other persistent flow patterns might form in the motion of ions in a Paul trap.

Finally, we worked on a theory to explain the phenomenon of radio-frequency heating in a Paul trap. To do this, we’ve taken our normal approach of combining numerical simulations and analytical arguments to understand the chaotic motion that happens in a Paul trap. We’re also writing this up for publication.

You graduated this year. In retrospect, what do you think of your journey to this point?
I’ve been lucky enough to find several people whom I could turn to for advice along the way. Professor Reinhold Blümel played a central part in my early academic development. When I began working with him freshman year, there was still a lot that I had to learn. I did start with the sophomore-level physics courses, so I wasn’t starting from nothing, but spending the summer learning the analytical tools and programming that I needed for research also taught me to be self-sufficient and to utilize my resources.

So Professor Blümel was a mentor to you. What about your later years in college?
I’ve worked the closest, and for the longest continuous period, with Professor Greg Voth. My work with him has been on the experimental side, and I have enjoyed it immensely. Greg is someone who doesn’t push his students but compels them to excellence by example. He found me a project that I was able to see through from the beginning to the end of its first iteration. He helped me in understanding the many dimensions of scientific research—the interplay of simulations and experiment, the different perspectives on the role of theoretical research. Although I may switch sub-fields in graduate school (and no longer focus on experimental fluid dynamics) the skills that I’ve learned from working with Greg will continue to serve me well.

Did you come into Wesleyan knowing what you wanted to study?
I came to Wesleyan set on theoretical cosmology. The resident professor in this field had left Wesleyan shortly before my arrival, so for a short while I tinkered with x-ray astronomy and explored my interests there. However, the more physics and astronomy courses I took, the more I realized that there are differences in the way each discipline approaches and solves a problem. Passing no judgment on which is the ‘right’ way, my mind works more in the ‘physics way.’ Needless to say, I took as much physics as I could manage.

"The hardest part of physics is starting a problem. That’s where the fun is."

What is this ‘physics way’- that is, how do you approach a problem?
I played varsity football at Hopkins high school in New Haven. One message from my coach really resonated with me: “Do it.” There’s more trust and encouragement in that phrase than the common “suck it up.” Recently, I’ve thought back to football and realized how much this phrase and mentality might have impacted me. All too often in physics, you just have to plug your nose and take the plunge. The hardest part of physics is starting a problem. That’s where the fun is.

Did you ever have any second thoughts? Were there moments when you thought you were ready to switch fields, jump ship?
There were times when I thought I would “switch” to electrical/computer engineering or materials science. I never thought to leave STEM, though. I have vacillated over the years between a career in academia and one in industry, though now I am far more committed to becoming a professor than I ever have been.

You received the Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship for your commitment to academia. What draw does teaching have for you?
As I continue to think about the role I want to play in the physics community, my main consideration is where I will have the greatest value. As far as my understanding of the responsibilities of a university professor goes, I believe that this is where my strengths would be put to the best use.

So Wesleyan is a liberal arts college...
One of the nice things about Wes is that though it is a liberal arts college, it also has a graduate program. My favorite course here was actually a graduate level course in Statistical Mechanics that I took my junior year. The freedom that I’ve had at Wesleyan to chart my own path has helped me to develop as a young physicist.

In fact, I recently hosted a brilliant physicist at Wes. Faculty members usually invite the guests for our weekly colloquium, but I had the pleasure to host Professor S. James Gates, recent recipient of the National Medal of Science conferred by President Barack Obama. I got in touch with him through Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of University of Maryland - Baltimore County. Professor Gates is one of the few African American professors of physics and a beacon of intellect in all of science—I was very happy to host him at Wesleyan. I was also able to set up a conversation between him and some undergrads after the colloquium. In the end, I felt like I had made an important contribution to the department and it was even nicer to know that Professor Gates had a good time on his visit.

It sounds like the physics community benefits a lot from collaboration and connecting.
Conferences are where ideas are born!

I’ve been to and spoken at a handful of conferences that range in caliber and breadth. The most important and productive have been the ones run by the American Physical Society (APS). One of the more famous ones is the March meeting. Every year, around 5,000 physicists from all over the world—yes, there are that many—come together to talk about their research. The book listing all the talks is literally the size of a phonebook. The local convention center brims with buzz about the newest hot-shot physicists and the excitement of starry-eyed newcomers like my sophomore self. The amazing thing about these conferences is that they’re a great equalizer because anybody--from freshmen to Nobel laureates--can give a talk. The talks are during the day, but then everyone goes out to lunch or dinner together in small groups that you form throughout the day. Everyone is a colleague to each other, and the ideas are give and take.

For example, at the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics Annual Meeting this past fall, I walked into a session that had already commenced, and caught a talk by Vikram Singh, a PhD Student at Cornell University. He was working on a theoretical project directly related to the experiment that I had just finished. I tracked him down after his talk and our conversation helped me to solve a couple of mysteries we had and he pointed out a few classic but hard to come by journal articles that played an important role in my honors thesis.

[Guy G. Marcus ’13] Guy at Yale Science Saturday/Courtesy of Yale University

"Conferences are where ideas are born"

Do you think that a liberal arts approach changed the way you think about your field?
Writing in philosophy is about the precision of language and logical structure. There are plenty of academics in physics and in philosophy who would argue that the two aren’t very different at all, but are two ends of the same stick. You might want to read some of Professor Karen Barad’s work. Professor Joe Rouse first introduced me to here: she earned her PhD in Particle Physics and spend some time as a tenured professor (no big) and then shifted to Science and Technology Studies, and the Philosophy of Physics, all with a strong Feminist and Queer Studies influence. I mean, I’m sorry, but she’s just effing cool. The next year I sat in the front row at two of her talks at Wesleyan, and had the chance to speak with her for a fair bit. Professor Barad is doing something so important for physics, though I’m not sure if everybody sees it that way…just yet. She sees physics and philosophy as two spin-states of the same electron.

Well, she’d be more likely to say that it’s just a single entangled state, but who’s being precise? This very kind of thinking has changed how I look at science and the world as a whole. (As a side note, a lot of the same abstract overtones were audible in Joss Whedon’s commencement speech, which was awesome!)

"physics and philosophy as two spin-states of the same electron"

With minimal writing in the physics curriculum, writing in philosophy—particularly, in the philosophy of science—has been a great alternative. I’ve enjoyed the coursework in the Science in Society Program, something fairly unique to Wesleyan. It’s taught me how to think critically about the science that I study, and how I am involved in it.

Maybe this is silly—I think poetry and philosophy have influenced my development of important skills in physics. Namely, creativity and communication. The goal of poetry, as I see it, is to express feelings and experiences in a visceral, potent way. This is strikingly similar to what constitutes a foundational physics discovery. The best physicists have found a way to express a simple concept in a conceptually new way--for example, Einstein’s General Relativity, Feynman’s Quantum Electrodynamics.

Feynman, Einstein, the greats…how has their thinking influenced you?
I sometimes forget how much inspiration I draw from others—and not even just those who work on the same problems. In getting ready for the next phase of my life, there’s been a stark change of pace as I finish up my research projects. I’ve resumed my old habit of listening to biographies of the physics greats during my daily workout—Feynman, Dirac, Bohr, Einstein, and so on. There’s something very special to me about being literate in physics and reading a popular science book on it. Especially biographies. I understand the physics enough where it doesn’t obscure any of the phenomenal inspiration I can draw from the lives of these scientists.

Are these books stylized? Surely as were Feynman’s famous lectures. Do I expect that reading them will turn me into the brain-child of Feynman and Einstein? I dearly wish it would, but it’s more the rush of excitement I feel when I hear about how they think.

"There’s something very special to me about being literate in physics and reading a popular science book on it."

How do you plan on continuing your involvement in science?
This summer, I’ll be starting research at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to the fellowships I’ve received from the NSF and Ford Foundation, I’ve also been awarded the Nathaniel Boggs, Jr. Memorial Fellowship by Johns Hopkins. I’ll begin my PhD program in physics this fall, where I will conduct research in theoretical quantum condensed matter under Professor Oleg Tchernyshyov, of JHU’s Institute of Quantum Matter (IQM).

The IQM brings synthetic chemistry together with experimental and theoretical physics in an intimate collaboration. This kind of multifaceted approach to a discrete class of research problems seems, to me, the ideal approach to solve the most interesting problems still known to modern science.

There is a very lively community of theoretical and experimental hard-condensed matter physicists at the IQM, and I am very excited to become a part of it when I start research this summer.

When I met Guy for lunch, I was surprised to see that he had dressed up. When I asked him about his spiffiness, he reluctantly told me that he was attending a fancy dinner later. Further prodding revealed the whole truth: he was off to accept the Bertman Prize for his “particularly resourceful and creative approach to Physics research.”

I’m guessing that all this business with studying chaos must have helped Guy in maintaining such sheer order in his own life. Understated, and life on track, Guy has great things ahead of him. We wish him the best of luck.

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