APS March Meeting: Astronomy Detectors & Physics Education


The March Meeting of the American Physical Society was held in Boston, MA, February 27-March 2, 2012. At this, the APS's largest meeting, the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP) and the APS Forum on Education (FEd) co-sponsored a session of invited talks on “Astronomy’s Detectors and Physics Education.”

The session was organized by Dr. James Beletic, Director of the Astronomy and Civil Space unit of Teledyne Imaging Sensors (jbeletic@teledyne-si.com) and Dr. Charles H. Holbrow, Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics Emeritus, Colgate University (cholbrow@mit.edu).

Astronomy’s Detectors and Physics Education

The session had five speakers with first hand knowledge of the development or use of astronomy’s technologies such as CCD cameras, high resolution spectroscopy, or the remarkable detectors developed to make astronomical observations in the infrared, millimeter, x-ray, and gamma-ray parts of the spectrum.  The speakers provided an interesting account of the technologies and their basic physics and pointed out ways physics instructors might use descriptions of the technologies as contexts for teaching physics ideas and principles to undergraduate or graduate physics students.


Astronomy's detectors open windows into the Universe. Physicists, astronomers, and engineers have pushed detector technologies to extend our vision across the entire electromagnetic spectrum -- from radio waves to millimeter and infrared radiation through the visible into the ultraviolet and beyond to x-rays and gamma rays. Neutrino detectors let us see into the hearts of stars; cosmic ray detectors awaken us to the presence of processes of enormous energy. Soon, we expect, detectors of gravitational radiation will show us an entirely new view of the Universe.

The technologies of astronomy's detectors are a promising resource for physics instruction. Some of the possibilities of this resource were explored in "Astronomy's Detectors and Physics Education,'' a session of invited papers at the APS March Meeting in Boston (Feb 27 - March 2, 2012). Because of its connections to both education and industry, the session was co-sponsored by the APS Forum on Education and the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics.

The lead-off speaker, Dr. James Beletic, Director of Astronomy & Civil Space at Teledyne Imaging Sensors (TIS) also chaired the session. He gave a fine overview of optical and infrared detectors and their physics.

Next, Dr. Vyshnavi Suntharalingam, Group Leader, Advanced Imaging Technology at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, took us through the refinements of design and fabrication that have made silicon and CCDs so important for astronomy. She reviewed the achievements of CCDs, the capabilities of CMOS devices, and some future prospects.

The last three speakers showed the intersections of their work with physics education. Each intersection was unique in an interesting way. Dr. George Ricker, Senior Research Scientist in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, told about the work of four of his graduate students. In each case detector development was central to his Ph. D. education. For each of the four his graduate education led to an important career and leadership in astronomy or space science.

Dr. Zoran Ninkov, Professor in the Center for Imaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, described his year-long course in which his students learn and use basic physics and engineering to design and build a working CCD camera.

Dr. John Kovac, Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Harvard University, closed the session with a two-part talk. First, he gave a gripping account of detector development, installation, and use at the South Pole Telescope; then he described his course in which undergraduates build a microwave horn, assemble the necessary electronics, and detect the cosmic microwave background.

The speakers did an outstanding job. Their presentations had a synergy that made the overall impact of the session greater than the sum of its parts. The FEd and FIAP were fortunate to have the time and effort of these five invited speakers.