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Three Union scientists use newspaper column to share love of science

JACKSON, Tenn.May 3, 2002 – Mix three professors, a love of science, and a passion for teaching and the result is—the answers to all those questions you always wanted to know as a child but your parents couldn’t explain. That is the purpose of “Inquiring Minds,” a monthly column in the Jackson Sun addressing the strange and the unusual, the baffling and the odd in the world of science, written by three Union science professors.

Kyle Hathcox, Glen Marsch, and David Ward are the minds and writers behind this unusual but informative column. The idea, born in an informal meeting, was suggested by Hathcox.

“The three of us were just talking, when Dr. Hathcox said something about writing something for the Jackson Sun to help people understand science better,” recalled Ward. “We all thought it sounded like a good idea, so we contacted the paper.”

The editors at the Jackson Sun also liked the idea and the men began formulating their first draft, which debuted in May 1999. The three professors collaborate on most of the pieces, but if something interests one of them specifically, he will contribute more. After a rough draft is written, all of them work together to formulate the piece into clear, concise terms that can be understood by a non-scientist, which “is the hardest part” admits Hathcox.

“We do our best to write it so any junior high/high school student can understand the explanation,” Hathcox explained. “We do try to stay away from formulas because most people instantly stop reading when they see a formula, but sometimes those are necessary.”

So who are these men, and why do they love science, chemistry, and physics so much they’re willing to spend hours explaining it to anyone who will listen?

Hathcox, professor and coordinator of physics at Union, has loved science for as long as he can remember. He was always especially inquisitive about how things worked, and he found physics provided the answers to his questions.

“As a child, I took everything apart,” he confessed. “I just wanted to see how it worked. Physics is a way to explain how something works.”

The love for taking things apart to discover how they work led to an important discovery as a graduate student. Hathcox and his colleagues took apart a lab instrument used to order and measure experiments, and they were able to calibrate it so that it worked more accurately.

“If a physicist acquires a new $20,000 instrument, the first thing he does is take it apart,” Hathcox joked. “We did that and were able to refine the instrument so that it measured more precisely than any other of its kind at that time.”

Glenn Marsch, associate professor of physics, also grew up with the knowledge that studying science was all he ever wanted to do. “I think I was about five years old when I decided I wanted to get a Ph.D in science,” he said. “I was an atheist until I was in college, but I always loved the design of the universe and wanted to understand the physical world better.”

Marsch’s greatest fascination with science is the spirit of discovery and how the collective body of knowledge in the field is increasing.

“There are so many things we still don’t know about our world and to discover something nobody knows is thrilling. Every discovery brings us to a deeper understanding of reality,” Marsch said. “Equally captivating are the vast areas that appear intractable to human wisdom. The universe is so unusual—almost bizarre—and I am fascinated by the aspects that seem to be beyond comprehension.”

Marsch is currently working on DNA research with Fred Gingerich at Vanderbilt University. They are studying DNA damage caused by carcinogens and how the structure of that damage affects changes in DNA.

Marsch is hopeful their studies will lead to the development of better drugs and better treatment of diseases. “Science is a progressive field,” he added. “A scientist’s goal should be to move forward and improve the world.”

Unlike his two colleagues, David Ward did not grow up with any intention to study science. It was not until junior high that his math teacher sparked an interest in mathematics and physics, but even then he thought about becoming a surgeon.

“I had not been a very good student up to the point,” he admitted. “But in seventh grade my math teacher took a real interest in me and spent a lot of time helping me. I finally began to understand math which led to a real interest in physics.”

As a senior in high school, his fascination with using mathematics to explain the physical world helped him decide that physics was really the career he wanted. For an experiment in his physics class, the students would place a marble on a track and allow it to roll off the table. They used formulas to calculate and predict where the marble would drop and placed a cup at the spot to catch the marble.

“My group managed to determine the marble’s course correctly and it went into the cup,” Ward, associate professor of physics, remembered. “I think that was the moment when things really clicked. I loved the idea of using my knowledge of mathematics and physics to solve problems in the real world.”

That fascination with science as a useful tool in a world full of real life problems is still what inspires the three professors in their careers and the time they devote to “Inquiring Minds.”

“If we can help people understand scientific aspect of the universe and show them how critical and useful science is, it is worth the time and we put into the column,” concluded Hathcox.

By Mariann Martin,
Class of 2005

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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