February 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 16°F


Physics department announces name change

Physics students and faculty will see some reorganization of their department, as it has changed its name to encompass astronomy, the branch of physics that studies stars, planets and outer space.

The Department of Physics is now the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Luke Keller, chair of the department and associate professor of physics, said the department’s name change, which took effect in November 2013, better reflects the evolving interests of its students. The physics department’s webpage currently lists 77 students.

“It is definitely a growing field, and it’s a field that’s changing rapidly because of technology, because of bigger and better telescopes and computers,” Keller said.

The college is currently home to the Clinton B. Ford Observatory, which was built in 1998 and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is one of the resources on campus for students interested in astronomy. Keller also said the astronomy classes offered as general education courses are becoming increasingly popular within the department.

The college is in the process of making the name change official on HomerConnect, syllabi, letterheads and hardcopy prints. Keller said the department’s new branding will also gauge prospective student interest in astronomy as a separate major.

“The first step for us is change the name so that now when people search [us], they see, ‘Oh, now they’re doing astronomy at Ithaca College,’ and then, ‘Oh, what’s up with no major,’” he said.

Keller, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Arizona and holds a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin, said several faculty members have also proposed a major in astronomy. However, Keller said at this point in time the college administration doesn’t want to make it a separate program because there is insufficient interest from the student body to justify the costs.

However, if about 10 students annually expressed interest in an astronomy major, the college would be more likely to approve it, he said.

Keller said fortunately for students, degrees in physics and degrees in astronomy are so indistinguishable that majoring in physics with a concentration in astronomy would be equivalent.

Junior Kirk Norton, who is currently taking an astronomy class titled “Stars, Galaxies and the Universe,” said the differences between astronomy and physics are distinctive.

“Astronomy really is a different science from physics; it’s an applied physics, but then again, so is chemistry, in a sense,” he said. “If the department grew large enough so that they could justify separating into two departments, I personally think it would be a good move.”

Matthew Price, assistant professor, said while he doesn’t think the interest in astronomy would grow quick enough, even with an astronomy major, he would rather the department itself remain smaller and less competitive.

“We could easily become a music school kind of selectivity as well,” he said. “I don’t want to go to a 3 percent selection criteria. I personally like to have anybody that wants to become a physics major.”

Taylor Zambrano can be reached at tzambra1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @tzambra1