December 1, 1996
Come next year, the intellectual glow over Tulane's uptown campus will be, at least temporarily, a tad diminished. James McGuire, high-wattage thinker and the Murchison-Mallory Professor of Physics, will take a year's leave at the end of the spring semester to develop his current research at a number of institutions in Germany.
The opportunity for McGuire comes in the form of a prestigious Humboldt Research Award, one of 80 that are annually granted by the German government to top U.S. researchers as an ongoing token of appreciation for the Marshall Aid Plan. Nominated by German colleagues, award recipients engage in research for lengthy periods in Germany. McGuire will hitch his Humboldt funding to a sabbatical leave for a stay that will take him through the summer of 1998 in a country that has both professional and personal meaning to him.
"I have been on sabbatical before in Germany and have collaborated with 50 or 60 of its scientists," says McGuire. "My wife and I were married in Berlin," he adds. While he will be based in Frankfurt, McGuire anticipates traveling throughout Germany and perhaps, even to Russia. Interaction with colleagues outside of one's regular sphere of activity, says McGuire, is one of the real amenities of the award.
"Most interesting ideas that have been developed have occurred when people find themselves in a position where they are not distracted by their ordinary lives. I went to Berlin on sabbatical in 1981, and a lot of the ideas that I have been developing since then came from that quiet period." And what kind of ideas has McGuire been developing? "Describe my field? Oh that's easy," he says. "I am interested in understanding complex systems in terms of simple ones." The thrust of physics, after all, says McGuire, is "to understand the simplicity of nature." McGuire, who says he "is fortunate enough to get paid to sit and think," likes to consider how complex systems work in order to understand the interdependency of things within that complexity.
"I am interested in interdependency or correlation, and we see correlation in all sorts of things: from how two electrons in a single atom sort of push each other around, all the way up to DNA, all the way up to heartbeat intervals, all the way up to memory cells and how memory works. I've even seen analyses that have to do with corporate growth and free will." For much of his research, however, McGuire examines one of nature's most simple structures. "What I work on are individual atoms; the one I happen to like best is helium, because it's got two electrons, and if I want to understand the interdependency of electrons then the easiest place to begin is helium. If I can understand helium, then I'll go to the next more complicated system."
In Electron Correlation Dynamics in Atomic Collisions, a book he just finished for Cambridge University Press, McGuire pushes into new areas of his field. Research up to this point, says McGuire, has focused on the interdependency of electrons in terms where energy is distributed when molecules shift. "What I'm interested in understanding is not only where the energy goes," says McGuire, "but the dynamics of how that happens." All in all pretty heady stuff, but McGuire says it ought not be incomprehensible to laymen. "If I can't describe physics to a fourth grader, then it raises the question about whether I understand what I am talking about," he says.
Which is why, perhaps, his "Our Physical World" course is popular among non-science undergraduates. Not that McGuire expects to transform liberal arts students into apostles of correlation dynamics. "Those of us who have the privilege to be in academic positions have the responsibility to explain to others what we do and why we do it," he says. It's common for McGuire to use humor, brainteasers, literary references and personal anecdotes in his class to loosen the nuts and bolts of physics. "I love teaching liberal arts students," he says. "They are so open-minded; they'll challenge the suppositions that we make in physics, some of which simply aren't always true."
Turnabout is fair play, however. McGuire likes to challenge their suppositions as well. "Does it ever bother you that the sky is dark at night?" McGuire asks, smiling. Take the bait and he'll lead you through a discussion that begins with the Big Bang and ends somewhere at the edge of the universe--if the universe indeed has an edge. McGuire laughs when he says that friends tell him that what he really does is make simple things complex. All teasing aside, McGuire intends to continue his push against the boundaries of his field.
"What is it that defines complexity?" he asks. "How do we begin to understand it?" How, indeed. "'Complex' literally means 'not simple,'" says McGuire, "but if we understand it, it becomes fairly simple and it's not complex anymore." It sounds inscrutable, but for McGuire it is another piece to nature's elementary yet elusive puzzle. There will be more pieces to collect, certainly. Some, perhaps, in Germany. And others, well, the universe is a big place.
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