Strong Support for Physics Writing
Emeritus Professor of Physics Bob Bowden left, speaks with Justin Bangerter, the first winner of the Robert Lee Bowden Jr. Physics Essay Competition.
In 1996, after 33 years as a member of the physics faculty at Virginia Tech, Bob Bowden became an emeritus professor. But he has not let that small fact stop him from helping students in science.
After his retirement, Bowden mentored high-school science teachers. He wrote a computer program that makes it easier for high-school students to visualize the special theory of relativity as it might be viewed by Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein. He taught occasional physics classes at the university, most recently in 2005.
Now, Bowden and his family have ensured his legacy of service by making a significant philanthropic commitment to the department to which he dedicated his career. They created an endowment to provide a generous prize to winners of the new Robert Lee Bowden Jr. Physics Essay Competition.
Rising juniors and seniors who are majoring in physics can submit essays on a physics topic of their choice, which are judged by a select jury on how elegantly and clearly they make their points.
The inaugural prize was presented in April, at the physics department's annual awards ceremony, to Justin Bangerter, a native of Lynchburg, Va., who received his bachelor's the following month. His essay focused on how the variational principle of calculus applies to physics.
"Basically it was a rundown of the idea, broken down into more easily digestible terms for the general public, and I presented a few simple philosophical implications," said Bangerter, who is considering becoming a teacher and plans to mention the prize when applying to graduate schools.
Bangerter said the contest is a good opportunity for physics students to "show something they don't normally show to the department, and maybe combine various skills that they've gained over their education."
Along with physics, writing is one of Bowden's passions. He writes essays on wide variety of topics to share with friends and family. Bowden believes physics students should be able to communicate their ideas to the general public, not just other physicists.
By establishing an essay contest for physics majors, he said, "We're trying to encourage people to write well and, if they can, write beautifully."
Professor Beate Schmittmann, the physics department chair, agrees that communication skills are essential even -- and especially -- in highly technical disciplines like physics.
"As a physicist, no matter what role you have in your work life, you always have to communicate with people from very different backgrounds," she explained. "Only part of your audience will be fellow physicists. The other part will be business partners, the general public, your co-workers, and your boss. You need to be able to communicate with these people what it is that you are doing and why it is important."
Bowden spent much of his youth in Kentucky. He enrolled at what is now Murray State University, in Murray, Ky., intending to become an architect or engineer.
"When I took my first physics course I was hooked," Bowden said. "It was just one of those things I could do well. It was mathematical. It tickled my interest, my curiosity. I love all those things physicists love. We love puzzles. We love discovery. We love to learn."
In 1956, Bowden moved to Blacksburg to get his master's in physics. More than a half-century later, he is still here. After completing his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in 1963, he got a postdoctoral appointment, which later converted to tenure track.
Getting Virginia Tech degrees has become a tradition in Bowden's family. His sons Todd and Brent both have bachelor's degrees and master’s degrees from the school. Brent returned to the university as a laboratory specialist in biological sciences after spending some years at the National Institutes of Health.
Todd is expected to complete his doctorate in instructional design and technology this year. He recently won Governor Tim Kaine's Learning Apps Development Challenge by creating an Apple iPhone app -- called Number Line -- to help middle-schoool students learn about fractions, decimals, and percentages.
Bowden continues to attend weekly colloquia run by the physics department, in which speakers present on topics in their fields. For a retired professor like him, he said, it's natural to stay involved with a university that has played such a major role in one's life.
"I would recommend it to any [emeritus professor] who thinks he or she has the time," Bowden said. "In fact, I would recommend taking the time. It's just one of those things that keep you alive. The brain doesn’t stop just because you're retired."
A version of this article will appear in the fall issue of Virginia Tech College of Science Magazine.