Solving a 20-Year Mystery

Ohio Wesleyan graduate Alex Howe ’11 a finalist for national physics award

Ohio Wesleyan 2011 graduate Alex Howe was nominated for the national physics award based on his Senior Honors Project research. (Photo by Paul Molitor)

Each year, one student or recent graduate from an undergraduate institution and one student or recent graduate from a Ph.D. granting institution receive the national LeRoy Apker Award for outstanding undergraduate physics research from the American Physical Society (APS). Alex Howe ’11 of Norwalk, Ohio, has been named a finalist in this prestigious competition. APS will pay for his trip to Washington, D.C., to make a presentation about his research and compete with other finalists Sept. 1.

“I was honored to be named a finalist and very encouraged to see my research rated so highly,” said Howe.

He started his research as a Summer Science Research Program project in 2009. During his two years of research at Ohio Wesleyan, he solved a 20-year mystery related to the structure properties of a proton-rich isotope of selenium (Se-71).

Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Bob Kaye, Ph.D., explained that: “In an atomic nucleus, the constituent protons and neutrons sometimes move collectively with each other, giving the appearance of one contiguous body that rotates, for example. Other times they arrange themselves in particular ‘orbits’ and move between these orbits independently. Alex’s research focused on a quantitative determination of how collective the motions of the protons and neutrons are in the selenium-71 (Se-71) nucleus, having 34 protons and 37 neutrons.

“Se-71 is located in the so-called ‘Wild West’ region of the nuclear landscape, where the degree of collective behavior varies rapidly with the number of constituent protons and neutrons. Alex’s research conclusively demonstrated that Se-71 shows an intermediate degree of collectivity when compared with its nearest neighboring nuclei. In the process, Alex also solved a long-standing mystery surrounding this nucleus concerning the pattern in which Se-71 radiates energy.”

In his nomination letter to the APS, Kaye stated: “Alex was an exceptional student and a real joy to work with. He possesses a rare combination of high intellect, a strong work ethic, a powerful determination, and an uncanny ability to solve difficult problems independently. He’s definitely a future star in the making.

“Alex’s research has certainly been at the graduate level, and his overall productivity throughout this research project has been the best I have ever seen in my 10 years of teaching and mentoring undergraduates. What really separates Alex from other outstanding undergraduates that I have worked with, though, is his ability to obtain such remarkable results on his own.”

Kaye is currently working with Howe to submit his paper for publication in the internationally recognized journal Physical Review C. Howe will be first (or lead) author—a relatively rare feat in nuclear physics research.

Read his research summary (PDF).

As a finalist for the Apker Award, Howe received a $2,000 honorarium and a certificate, and Ohio Wesleyan’s Physics Department received $1,000 for nominating him. If Howe wins the competition, $5,000 awards will be presented to him and the physics department.

This fall, Howe will be attending Princeton University in a Ph.D. program in astrophysical sciences. After he earns his doctorate, he plans to pursue a career in research.

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