Fall 2015 /What If…/

“Here, Let Me Show You…”

David Haley’s contagious passion for physics

David Haley working with electronicsIf you are ever offered a tour of the new Millikan Laboratory and Andrew Science Hall with David Haley as your guide, take it. A 21-year veteran of physics departments, he has an enthusiasm for his subject that is nonstop and infectious. Completely at ease in the corridors of Millikan’s new underground laboratory, he misses no opportunity to point out the fascinating creations of Pomona students and faculty.

“This one is a sonoluminescence project,” he says, referring to one of the many capstone projects he’s kept over the years. “It uses sound to compress a bubble, which produces light. And this—” He gestures to a nearby rolling chair contraption. “—Is a fire-extinguisher-propelled rocket cart. You sit on it and you squeeze the handle and you launch yourself down the hall. It’s for talking about Newton’s laws.” Before exiting a workroom, he pauses to flick on a homemade air hockey table, explaining: “I’m trying to convince one of the students to create 3D shapes that we can print and use to teach conservation of momentum.”

Haley, who has been working at Pomona since the summer of 2001, describes himself as a “physics roadie.” As the senior lab technician of the Physics Department, he is primarily responsible for handling the equipment for labs and the lecture demonstrations, in addition to supporting faculty research and student projects. “One of the nuances of my job is making the process more streamlined and straightforward for students, so they’re less worried about how things work and more focused on the concepts behind the lab,” he explains. “If I do my job right, you’ll rarely know I was there.”

Haley graduated with a B.S. in physics from Kansas State University, after which he spent seven years working as a lab technician at New Mexico State University before moving to California. Luckily for Pomona, he was informed of the open position by chance, after contacting a former coworker who happened to attend the same summer meeting of the Physics Instructional Resource Association (PIRA) as Pomona Professor of Physics David Tanenbaum. “I didn’t really realize the caliber of Pomona when I first got the job,” Haley confesses. “It was just a name to me. But once I started working here, I realized what a special place this is. It makes me believe in karma.”

If good karma is a reward for good deeds, Haley deserves a lot of it. He recently gave a presentation to the Southern California chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) detailing the Pomona College Lending Library of physics equipment, which he manages. Composed of experiments ranging from electricity and magnetism to mechanics to superconductivity, the library serves physics teachers from around Southern California, who can request to borrow experiment kits for their lessons once they’ve attended a Pomona faculty-run workshop. “This is part of Pomona College’s mission,” says Haley. “We’re obligated as educators to help teach not only our students here at Pomona, but the general populace. I like that I can use what I do, and the equipment I have, to get people interested in science and the world around them.”

Since Haley is an enthusiast for science in general, you’d think choosing to focus in only one field would have been tough for him, but this isn’t the case. “I like the applied nature of physics,” he says. “The world is a very beautiful place, and I want to understand it better. Why do objects have mass? Why is there gravity? The more evidence you get to support a theory, the more you believe it’s accurate, but you can never really take it as truth. But that’s what I like about physics. It’s always a reiteration.”

And yet despite the reiteration, Haley’s job is never boring. Particularly exciting for him was the opportunity to use his many years of experience to help design the new science building. The Physics and Astronomy Department seized the opportunity to reorganize their space, implementing prep rooms between labs and behind lecture classrooms.

His favorite parts of the building also include the new student research project space, which was absent in the old Millikan. And new perks of the job include selecting items for Millikan’s first-floor display case. Haley is eager to point them all out: “These are Lichtenberg’s figures; they’re basically electric sparks encased in acrylic. This is a laser-etched glass figurine. This is the Milky Way galaxy, and this is a large-scale galactic structure. Those are some of our antique Gessler tubes from the 1920s. Those are all meteorites. And here’s a 3D-printed figurine of a student wearing a hat.”

Below ground again, as Haley enthusiastically indicates each of the projects that live in the basement of Millikan, he tells the stories of their creators. The student who created a rail gun as his senior thesis is now working at Los Alamos. Another student started his own software company.

Haley keeps all of his thank-you notes in a special place of honor on his desk. Smiling to himself as he goes through each one, he remarks, “It’s easy to come to work when you have things like this. To work with people like this is amazing. Plus, I get to play with soap bubbles and Tesla coils and shoot balls across the room. It’s really—can you see the colors in the film now?”

He gestures toward his workbench, where he has set up an old junior project, a soap film encased in a clear box. “The colors have to do with the thickness of the film. It’s an interference of light demonstration, pretty much the same idea as an oil slick on water.

“Here—let me show you.”