Featured Scientist - Leo Bellantoni
From the Spring-Summer 1999 sciencelines
A growing number of teachers who have participated in the Phriendly Physics program have appreciated working with physicist Leo Bellantoni. This interview gives us all some insight into why he appreciates working with teachers.
Leo, thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. Please tell us about your position here at Fermilab.
In the hierarchy of grad student, post doc, professor-without-tenure, tenured professor, I am a post doc.
In addition to my research responsibilities, I am a Lederman Fellow and charged to do things with education.
Please tell us about the project you are working on now.
I'm working with the KTeV collaboration. We are studying the kaon particle. It is a strange particle, if you'll excuse the expression. Kaons and anti-kaons behave differently than other particle-antiparticle pairs. The only example you can see is in the lab. The B factories expect to see similar differences in B mesons. We're all made out of matter, and in almost all ways, its the same as antimatter. So, if they are the same, why is it that the universe is made of one and not the other?
This collaboration is about 80 names on paper which is pretty
small these days. In addition to Fermilab, the University of Chicago,
Elmhurst College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rutgers, University
of Colorado-Boulder, Arizona, Rice, and Virginia are some of the
universities to name a few. We have some collaborators from Japan.
What is your average day like?
That's the best part; every day is different. Some days you'll be bolting this together, or turning that on, reading papers, sitting and thinking. . . . You may have 20 pages of a paper filled with equations and you need to analyze all of it and understand what's in it. Another day you may be engrossed in how well an apparatus did or did not work. Then, of course, there's the papers--papers to write and peer review. The question of that or which, the amateur grammar that we're not always too great at necessarily. That's what attracted me: variety in the work day.
How did you know that science was something you wanted to do?
By doing it as an undergraduate. Most undergraduate programs get students into labs working on experiments. Many of these may be classic great experiments such as the Millikan oil drop when you conduct the measurement of an electrical charge. As juniors and seniors there are required experiments using some level of real science inquiry while at the same time you have to get through those thick books and those exams.
Where did you go to college, and what were the things you remember most about it?
I attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for my undergraduate degree and the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school. I remember MIT as brutal, but graduate school was really great.
After MIT I did a stint as an engineer at Control Data and Varian and Associates. I spent three or four years and survived two mass layoffs. These firms built devices you would use to build integrated circuits. No one has really built a second generation electron beam machine.
University of Wisconsin was a blast. The first part, working the problems--if I worked hard I could get everything right. The second part--doing the work of being a physicist was tougher because there is no path. You have to have original ideas and then pick one and see if it works. You have to be able to understand others' work even though their work may not be clear or perfect. I remember as an undergraduate, studying Louis de Broglie's original paper on wave particle duality and I didn't get it. Through graduate school until I found out he didn't get it either. It was an accident, and although it was a key concept at the time, we now know that it's also unnecessary; you can do all of quanrum mechanics without it. No matter what you are studying the first time, you will get it wrong. But by the twentieth or thirtieth the dots become connected and in the right order. Entire sciences have been edited out of books because it took fifty years to figure out it was wrong. A sociology professor at MIT pointed this out to me.
What factors influenced you to go into a science career?
My mother is a chemist and my dad is a mathematician. I remember in fourth grade a discussion they were having at dinner about Boltzmann's distribution, something about how many molecules have how much energy. There were applications in chemistry and you could quantify this. I suggested that maybe we should talk about something that we could all discuss. My parents smiled and so we talked about baseball. So, you see, the influence comes from home.
What was high school like for you?
My first physics class in high school was very bad. And it is to that teacher that I attribute my success. He couldn't complete an English sentence so I had to read the book from cover to cover to get it. The department had chosen a textbook that worked well, the old PSSC. I hear it's not popular, but it worked great for me. With the math I knew that was all I needed - even for college physics.
Did anything make science memorable for you when you were younger?
I hate to disappoint here, but I went to a parochial school in New York City. Sister didn't know much and wasn't interested in science. By sixth grade some of the students asked the teachers to please do science. We were tired of social studies. So, I had a few good middle school years of life science, biology, and earth science. We don't do physics in the American school system and that makes it much harder. It is a way of thinking that is different--a bit weird.
What other experiences did you have that made you interested in science education?
After working as an engineer and before graduate school, I served in the Peace Corps. for two years. I taught outside the U.S. in Tanzania, East Africa in the British curriculum. We had some training in the language, familiarization with the British curriculum and some cultural sensitivity training. I had a chance to see the system of neo-colonialism and what is and is not common to the human experience.
In these cultures most girls are married by age 14, except those who go to high school, who are then married by age 20. So, it's probably not all that different a custom from here that people marry about two years after the school they finish. In the British system they have standard national graded exams that send students into O level that would include about five subjects and be comparable to three years of high school or A level that would be an additional two years after that that would focus on a specific subject, more of a college prep program.
What do you see in your future?
I plan to continue as a physicist and continue to teach and learn. What the interesting scientific questions will be, I can't really tell.
While I like to teach teachers, teaching children requires a specific set of skills that I do not have. I should not pretend to be someone I am not. I would like to see the Phriendly Physics program prosper and hope there will be a possibility to scale the program up since there is enough demand for hundreds of teachers. This type of program needs central people, and Wayne Wittenberg is an excellent, excellent educator, and we have nice resources.
I've also been involved in the Topics in Modern Physics program, a three-week program with classes in the morning and group projects in the afternoon. TMP and the DOE Honors program (for students) both had a component of building detectors and measuring cosmic rays. I enjoyed working with both of those programs.
If I had to pick one thing about teachers I've seen that seemed to make a difference in the job they do and how happy they are about it, its the ones who have more hussle or are less placid. They try very hard to do the best job they can. They expose themselves and their students to ideas and stuff usually beyond the regular curriculum. These are the teachers who want extra credit. They want the A+, not just the A.
Tell us about your family and hobbies.
I am married, no kids, but while just visiting my in-laws in North East China, we returned to find we had five sets of baby clothes in our luggage. Ahh, parents, you can't live with 'em and you wouldn't be here without 'em.
I'm also a contraption sports enthusiast. I like to put things on, like wheels or sticks on feet, sticks on hands, machines, gears, pedals . . . . while you are trying to propel oneself. I also like to sit on bleachers, drink beer and eat brats.