M. E. L Oakes Undergraduate Lectureship

University of Texas at Austin

Department of Physics


M. E. L. Oakes Undergraduate Lectureship in Physics

The M. E. L. Oakes Undergraduate Lecture Series is supported by an endowment established by colleagues and friends of Professor Oakes, and alumni of the Department of Physics.

In the fall of 2003, when Professor Oakes announced his retirement, several of his colleagues felt that there should be some special recognition of his years of dedicated service to the department and, in particular, of his special role in the development and maintenance of our undergraduate majors program.

When he was asked what an appropriate recognition would be, Professor Oakes responded it should be something that would enrich the educational experience of all of our undergraduates. He suggested a lecture series dedicated to the undergraduates -- an idea that had not occurred to anyone. This response was typical in both the originality and the intent to support the undergraduates. This would be one or two special colloquia delivered by physicists with a recognized talent for bringing the latest results of research to the public and particularly the undergraduate students. As examples of potential speakers, Professor Oakes cited persons who had been recent recipients of the Oersted Medal of the American Physical Society.

With the announcement of the purpose of the endowment and the fact that it would honor Professor Oakes, the fundraising for the endowment went especially well. With a generous match offered by the Kodosky Foundation, colleagues, friends, and alumni donated sufficient funds to support two special lectures per year, one in the fall and one in spring.

These lectures will become an integral part of the colloquium series of the department. The student club for physics majors, SPS, will play a special role in the selection of the speakers, advertising the talk, and other special activities associated with the visiting lecturer.

The department is especially pleased that it will now have an ongoing activity that expands the educational experience of our undergraduate majors -- one more significant contribution by Professor Mel Oakes.

Melvin E.L. Oakes was born in Vicksburg, MS, in 1936. He attended Hinds Junior College on an athletic scholarship. He earned a B.S. in Physics from Louisiana State University in 1958. That same year he entered Florida State University's graduate physics program as a Nuclear Science Fellow. He completed a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics in 1964 and joined the plasma physics program at The University of Texas at Austin as a postdoc. In 1965, he was appointed Assistant Professor. His research interest was radio-frequency heating of plasmas, an area in which he directed the dissertations of many students. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1968 and to Full Professor in 1975. He was a charter member (1995) of the UT Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Throughout his career Professor Oakes was active in the undergraduate physics program and promoted physics undergraduate scholarships. His teaching awards include the first College of Natural Sciences Teaching Award, the Jean Holloway Teaching Award, the William Blunk Professorship, the Eyes of Texas Award, and the Chancellor's Council Teaching Excellence Award. He was selected a State of Texas Piper Professor in 2003. He retired in 2004. He continued to assist with freshman physics seminars, advising, teaching laboratories, and scholarships for several years before fully retiring. Since retiring, he has created a web site dedicated to the history of the University of Texas Physics Department. See: http://www.ph.utexas.edu/utphysicshistory/

Professor Oakes and his wife Patricia have three daughters: Elizabeth, a violist and Coordinator of the University of Iowa String Quartet Residency Program; Sarah, a high school chemistry teacher in Arlington, VA; and Mardie, an architect and Executive Director of Hello Housing, a nonprofit specializing in programs for low income housing in San Francisco. They also have three grandchildren.


Previous Lectures:

2005 Spring Lecture-Einstein's Biggest Blunder? A Cosmic Mystery

Lawrence Krauss, Case Western Reserve University (Spring 2005)

2005 Fall Lecture-Einstein: A Stage Portrait

Tom Schuch, SPOLI Productions (Fall 2005)

2006 Spring Lecture-Einstein's Odyssey

John Stachel, Boston University (Spring 2006)

2005 Spring Lecture-Relativity and Geometry

N. David Mermin, Boston University (Fall 2006)


2009 Spring Lecture-Rare Earth

Donald E. Brownlee, University of Washington (Spring 2009)

The 2009 lecture was given by Donald Brownlee, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington. His book, “Rare Earth”, was recommended to me by Austin Gleeson. I was so impressed that I recommended we try to get him. Austin worked diligently to make this happen. Here is a description of the talk which was well received.

Donald Eugene Brownlee (born December 21, 1943) is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington (Seattle) and the principal investigator for NASA's Stardust mission. His primary research interests include astrobiology, comets, and cosmic dust. He was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. Brownlee studied electrical engineering at University of California, Berkeley, prior to attending graduate school at the University of Washington. Brownlee received his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Washington in 1971, joining the Astronomy Department as faculty in 1975. He has also conducted research as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. Brownlee is co-author with paleontologist Peter Ward of two books, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe and The Life and Death of Planet Earth. In 1991, Asteroid 3259 was named after Brownlee. Also, the International Mineralogical Association has named a new mineral in honor of Donald Brownlee. This new mineral—brownleeite—is the first mineral found from a comet. He has been awarded the J. Lawrence Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, the Leonard Medal from the Meteoritical Society, and the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 2007. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lecture description:

“Our water-covered Earth is drastically different from other known planets. Earth’s surface water, land, friendly atmosphere, distance from the Sun, long term stability and a host of other factors have provided an oasis in space that has nurtured microbial life for billions of years and animal life for over 10% of Earth history.

Earth is dramatically different from its neighboring planets but how rare is it among all planets? As we learn more about planets we are finding that they are a diverse set of bodies with complex evolutionary histories. Is it easy to make Earths? How Earth-like does a planet really have to be to support life like us? How long can our planet support animals or even microbial life?

These and similar questions relate to our potential for detecting extraterrestrial life. If life-supporting planets are too rare they will be too far away for detailed study or more fanciful endeavors.

Planets change over time and in the second half of its life, our Earth will become quite “unearthly”, an ocean-free body heated by an ever brightening Sun. How long Earth’s plants and animals might survive in this period may depend on the actions and ingenuity of a single species - humans.”

2011 Spring Lecture-Energy in the 21st Century: The Economy, Security, and the Environment

Burton Richter, Stanford University, SLAC (Spring 2011)

Burton Richter (born March 22, 1931) is a Nobel Prize-winning American physicist. He led the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) team which co-discovered the J/ψ meson in 1974, alongside the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) team led by Samuel Ting. This discovery was part of the so-called November Revolution of particle physics. He was the SLAC director from 1984 to 1999.

A native of New York City, Richter was born into a Jewish[3] family in Brooklyn, and was raised in the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway.[4] His parents were Fanny (Pollack) and Abraham Richter, a textile worker.[5] He graduated from Far Rockaway High School, a school that also produced fellow laureates Baruch Samuel Blumberg and Richard Feynman.[6] He attended Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, then continued on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1952 and his PhD in 1956. He was director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) from 1984 to 1999.

As a professor at Stanford University, Richter built a particle accelerator called SPEAR (Stanford Positron-Electron Asymmetric Ring) with the help of David Ritson[citation needed] and the support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. With it he led a team that discovered a new subatomic particle he called a ψ (psi). This discovery was also made by the team led by Samuel Ting at Brookhaven National Laboratory, but he called the particle J. The particle thus became known as the J/ψ meson. Richter and Ting were jointly awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

Richter was a member of the JASON advisory group and serves on the board of directors of Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization focused on promoting sound science in American government.[7]

In May 2007, he visited Iran and Sharif University of Technology.[8]

In 2012, President Barack Obama announced that Burton Richter was a co-recipient of the Enrico Fermi Award, along with Mildred Dresselhaus.[7]

In 2013, Richter commented on an open letter from Tom Wigley, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and James Hansen, that Angela Merkel was "wrong to shut down nuclear".[9]

In 2014, Richter was among the residents of a continuing care retirement center filing a lawsuit alleging refundable entrance fees were sent out of state. This may be the first legal complaint challenging a continuing care retirement home's financial practices.[10][11][12] At a hearing on September 9, 2014 in Federal Court, attorneys allege Richter read the contracts, saw significant problems, and is entitled to pursue a legal judgement concerning the use of his money.[13]

His lecture was based on his book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors. Global climate change is one of the most important issues humanity faces today. This book assesses the sensible, senseless and biased proposals for averting the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on switching to more sustainable energy provision. Burton Richter is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who has served on many US and international review committees on climate change and energy issues. He provides a concise overview of our knowledge and uncertainties within climate change science, discusses current energy demand and supply patterns, and the energy options available to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Written in non-technical language, this book presents a balanced view of options for moving from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels into a much more sustainable energy system, and is accessible to a wide range of readers without scientific backgrounds - students, policymakers, and the concerned citizen.


2012 Spring Lecture-Biological Physics is Exciting and Challenging

Hans Frauenfelder, Los Alamos National Laboratory (Spring 2012)

2013 Spring Lecture-Rememebering Richard Feynman

David L. Goodstein, Professor of Physics, California Institute of Technology (Spring 2013)

2013 Fall Lecture-From Quanta to the Continuum: Opportunities for Mesoscale Science

George Crabtree, Argonne National Laboratory (Fall 2013)

2016 Spring Lecture-Robophysics: Physics Meets Robotics

Daniel L. Goldman, Physics Department, Georgia Tech School Of Physics, (Spring 2016)

Goldman investigates the interaction of biological and physical systems with complex materials like granular media, such as sand. He integrates laboratory experiment, computer simulation, and physical and mathematical models to understand the biomechanics of how animals like the sidewinder and sandfish move through sand and applies what he learns to create robots that can move in similar environments.