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Thesis Time #4- Journey to the Center

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 Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 

I did this profile as part of my application process for a fellowship to attend the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver. Once I made it to the great white north, I got to write a piece that you can read on the NASW website

In a tiny liberal-arts school tucked into the mountains of Western Massachusetts, Michael Bergman is studying something he can never see, touch, or take a sample of. Unlike some researchers, he isn’t trying to change the world. In fact, he’s trying to figure out what the world’s been doing for the past 4.54 billion years or so.

Bergman, a professor of Physics at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, studies the behavior of the earth’s core. An undertaking of such magnitude would usually only take place at a larger school, one with hoards of graduate students to hire and well-funded labs to work in. At a typical research university, professors in charge of experiments won’t even teach classes. Bergman chose a different path, and has spent nearly two decades as both a teacher and researcher at a school with fewer than four hundred students, none of them above the undergraduate level. When asked about this choice, Bergman is quick to point out that he’s not at such a disadvantage.

“For one thing, I enjoy teaching,” he said in a recent interview, “and it’s important to realize that teaching classes doesn’t preclude research.” While the pace of his research is necessarily slower than those who can run six or seven projects at a time, it seems that the balance between teaching and research is one that he finds easier to maneuver than most. Bergman regularly teaches two to three classes a semester in addition to lab sections. In recent years he has taught Physics I and II, Quantum Physics, Intro to Robotics, and several advanced classes focusing on higher physics and statistics. He has also led lab sections for a seminar course on climate change, a class often taken by students without previous background in the sciences. Despite having a course load no lighter than the average Simon’s Rock teacher, he also finds the time to continue his personal research.

Bergman currently focuses on the solidification and deformation of the earth’s inner core. Seismic waves have shown us that beneath the rocky crust and thick mantle, our planet’s outer core is liquid iron. The inner core is solid, despite temperatures that may be close to the sun’s 5505 degrees Celsius, because of its incredibly high pressure (over 3.3 million atm). The inner core has the property of seismic anisotropy, or variation of seismic wavespeed with direction. When passing through the earth, seismic waves move faster from north to south than they do from east to west. Bergman studies the cause and effects of this property, which stems from the alignment of crystals in the core. The solidification of the inner core from the outer core may be the primary energy source for the fluid motion that ultimately creates the earth’s magnetic field, which we know surprisingly little about. While Bergman can’t point to any immediate or obvious applications of his research at this point, he knows the project is important in its own right.

“I found it fascinating that we didn’t know anything about how the magnetic field of the earth is generated,” Bergman said of his first experiences with geology as an undergraduate student at Columbia University. “I thought it was something worth knowing.” After earning a Ph.D. at MIT in 1992 and serving as the NATO fellow at the University of Glasgow, Bergman began his current study of fluid dynamics and magnetohydrodynamics (the study of fluids that conduct electricity, like electrolytes or plasmas) at Harvard University for a year before taking a job at Simon’s Rock. He attributes his continued support, which includes laboratory resources from Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well as fourteen years of continuous three-year grants from the National Science Foundation, to good grant writing and determination. He’s been published over a dozen times during his employment at Simon’s Rock, including twice in Nature, once in 1997 and once in 2010.

“Luckily, this is a field where working at a slower pace is okay,” he said, shrugging off the idea that he faces a disadvantage. In addition to one postdoctoral assistant, Bergman hires several members of the Simon’s Rock student body to help him with his research each summer. Most of them are only qualified to do the simpler tasks in the lab, like measuring out samples and running repetitive tests on the mass spectrometer. These students require his constant guidance at first, but Bergman doesn’t seem to mind. “Some students are able to work with me for three or four of their years here, and with time their investment in the project grows, and they can work independently. It’s great when that happens.” When it doesn’t, Bergman just continues to do what he does best. His work might be easier at a massive research university, but Bergman wouldn’t have things change.

“Besides,” he says with a grin, “It’s just so much fun.”