The "Simplest" Subject
Outstanding Professor Derek Jackson Kimball’s quest into gravity, dark matter and new levels of precision in physics
BY SARAH STANEK
Derek Jackson Kimball has always been drawn to the big questions. The associate professor and chair of Cal State East Bay’s physics department has been on a search to satisfy his curiosity about life on Earth since middle school, a search he is passionately continuing as the university’s 2012-13 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor.
Physics may not be the first place most people look for answers, but Kimball says: “In many ways, it’s the simplest subject of all.” Scholars may disagree on the meaning of a Shakespearean soliloquy or the best approach to economic theory, but physicists find precision and what he describes as “deep connections between disparate things.”
As evidence, he points to the tides, the moon, the distant stars and planets and the famous apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head — phenomena humans had observed for eons suddenly coming together. All that time, he explains, it seemed “they’re probably not related, but (they’re) all described by gravity. It’s different manifestations of one idea. It’s very elegant.”
Kimball earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and admits he did not have the most auspicious of academic starts. He clearly recalls an early test for the honors physics sequence that brought him up short while “the people next to me were tearing through it.” He knew then he had a lot to learn, so he began tackling his studies with an enthusiasm his students and colleagues today would easily recognize. (“When you’re confused, that’s also a really exciting opportunity to learn,” he says, displaying the infectious optimism he’s known for in the physics department.)
Teaching and researching with undergraduates — as he was able to work with Dmitry Budker, his mentor and advisor at Cal — was Kimball’s ultimate professional goal, and Cal State East Bay fit the bill perfectly. “All of the people at the university are part of that brief time with students, where something profound happens to them, and it’s really amazing to be a part of that,” he said at an April event honoring faculty at the University’s Week of Scholarship.
He added, “It’s difficult to quantify, which may sound strange coming from a scientist.”
His mentor, Budker, says it was clear “from the very beginning” that Kimball was outstanding. He encouraged Kimball to keep working with him as a graduate student at Cal, where Kimball also excelled in research and advising, and they developed a strong professional rapport that Budker says is “the best thing that can happen to an advisor.”
Proximity to his alma mater keeps Kimball in ongoing collaboration with Budker, who says they talk regularly to “continue coming up with crazy ideas.” They’ve worked together on several papers and books, including “Optimal Magnetrometry,” released in March 2013, which they co-edited. Additionally, they are taking on an ambitious search for dark matter that will be coordinated with researchers and labs around the globe.
Using his own student experience as a model, Kimball hosts study sessions every week instead of office hours, where he offers students as much help as they need. Physics is a new subject for many of Kimball’s students; it’s relatively new to academia, too — humans have only formally been studying it for about 300 years. “So we should struggle with it,” he says.
That kind of support helped Kimball through his college years, and physics, he points out, is challenging enough without adding isolation. He describes it as a good-cop, bad-cop scenario — and physics is the bad cop.
The diverse backgrounds of CSUEB students presents another challenge for effective teaching. “You can’t have a one size fits all approach,” Kimball says. Giving students a variety of opportunities to succeed helps them find a passion; one may struggle with math while showing skill with experiments in the lab, and another may grasp theory but have more trouble thinking creatively. “You push the best to improve, and (help) those who are struggling to make progress without getting discouraged,” he says.
Kimball also recognizes that his work at Cal State East Bay can help address another important aspect of higher education: increasing interest in the sciences among underrepresented students like women and ethnic minorities. He is a member of a faculty and staff committee exploring issues of diversity and social justice, led by Julie Beck, associate professor in Criminal Justice Administration, as part of a University-wide initiative.
The issue goes directly to the “health of physics,” he says frankly. When outside groups don’t have a voice, “that’s an untapped
intellectual resource. The more perspectives, the better.”
Lasers & Laboratories
If the Hayward Campus is an atom, for Kimball, the Science buildings would be the nucleus. He’s rarely in one place for long, but his current projects most often find him in a lab in the southeast corner of the South Science building, home to a state of the art laser spectrometer that he and his colleagues brought to campus in 2010 with a grant from the National Science Foundation and the federal stimulus bill.
At the moment, it’s also sharing space with a more vintage piece of equipment, a 1960s-era spectrometer housed in a teal-colored box, similar to models Kimball used himself as an undergrad researcher. This summer, Kimball’s students are building a connection between the two spectrometers to expand their experiments and isolate new bits of information.
Describing a typical day in the lab, senior Jerlyn Swietlowski says most begin independently, as she and her fellow student research assistants warm up equipment, review the battered lab notebooks and, when something goes awry, “checking things you know ‘for sure’ you’ve already checked.”
In the close-knit physics department, students quickly develop working relationships with faculty; Swietlowski has worked in Kimball’s labs for the past two years and will present with him at a conference in Quebec in summer 2013. She was one of the many students, past and present, who supported Kimball’s nomination as Outstanding Professor. Letters from physics students, chemistry majors, alumni in Ph.D. programs and colleagues all took note of the same qualities — dedication, an ability to “bring to life” the most complex subjects and, of course, Kimball’s unflagging energy.
Looking at his resume, he’s needed it. His collaborators span the globe, and dozens of published articles credit CSUEB students as his co-authors. The spectroscopy lab is only able to hold some of his research; leaving the lasers in his students’ capable hands, Kimball crosses the hilltop picnic area to North Science to his spin gravity lab (featured in the Fall 2010 issue of Cal State East Bay Magazine).
Everything in the lab has been put there by students over the past seven years. He’ll proudly point to any element, like a coil system designed by Swietlowski, and explain its provenance and importance. The experiments they’ve conducted in this room are the ones he first envisioned when he arrived at CSUEB eight years ago, testing constants and fundamental laws of physics — or rather, as Kimball is always quick to qualify, “laws of physics as we currently understand them.”
As his projects demonstrate, there are still countless unknowns, things we are only now gaining the ability to measure. “Constants — are they really constant? Or do they change a little over time?” he wonders.
That’s why he’ll be looking so closely at any small anomalies revealed in his gravity research, which he says will be ready to review later this year. With his characteristic grin, he asks “What if the ‘blip’ is some new, crazy physics?”
He’ll put it at the top of the list of big questions to keep exploring.