03/12/2004 08:00:00

Caltech mineralogy professor George Rossman wins Feynman Prize for teaching excellence

PASADENA, Calif.—Ever wonder what becomes of the type of kid who keeps a rock collection?

For some of the brighter ones, at least, the answer is that they still collect rocks and minerals under the tutelage of award-winning California Institute of Technology professor George Rossman. As the member of the geology faculty most directly involved in mineralogy research, Rossman teaches a popular class at Caltech on the subject, and many of his former students are now prominent mineralogists themselves.

Rossman has been named this year's recipient of Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor, the Feynman Prize. The award, given to an outstanding faculty member each year, recognizes "exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction." Named in honor of legendary Caltech physics professor and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the prize is made possible by the generosity of an endowment from Ione and Robert E. Paradise, along with additional contributions from Mr. and Mrs. William H. Hurt.

Rossman won the award based on significant input from current and former students. Among the highlights of those comments is that he "is probably the best, clearest, and most exciting teacher I have ever had," that he "is such a great lecturer that he can make the class and each mineral very funny," and that he "is probably the best professor at Caltech."

For Rossman's part, he rather modestly says that minerals are inherently interesting subject matter for the classroom. "Students relate to tangible, visible items," he says, and the specimens sitting on the floor behind his desk easily make his point. One item, for example, is a rather large conglomeration of rock and minerals called pegmatite. Found in San Diego County, the rock contains minerals such as mica, tourmaline, and quartz.

"For me, the minerals are a beautiful entry into the science, because the beautiful colors and shapes are always due to underlying scientific principles," he says. "Nature has the ability to bring together a large number of the elements of the periodic table, and combine them under different pressure and temperature conditions for some really spectacular results."

The practical results are more widespread than one might assume. Synthetic minerals are found in a number of high-tech electronic devices these days, and applications include quartz oscillators, emerald and ruby lasers and such, and the field of mineralogy laps over into a variety of disciplines, including chemistry, solid-state physics, materials science, industrial technology, environmental science, biology, and planetary science.

In fact, the young science student who hopes to study other worlds some day--or perhaps even go to some of them--might do well to study geology and mineralogy. "We presume that the physical principles we learn on Earth are applicable to Mars and other planets," Rossman says. "In fact, they should be applicable in other solar systems."

Rossman's research interests involve the study of how electromagnetic radiation interacts with minerals. His lab's work concentrates on the visible and infrared, but past research has involved pretty much every other region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

"Our goals include understanding at a very basic level the nature of the interaction--in other words, how we can use photons to study minerals," he says. "We've developed a variety of analytical protocols, and I suppose one of our most recent successes has been in learning that the hydrogen content of nominally anhydrous minerals constitutes an important global reservoir that is capable of holding much of the world's water."

As is typically the case in the Caltech labs, students find more than enough opportunity to immerse themselves in the research. Rossman's lab includes staff scientists and postdoctoral researchers, but graduate students and undergraduates are welcome members of the team. One of Rossman's recent graduate students, Elizabeth Johnson, is now a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. An undergraduate now coming on board is currently a sophomore.

Written by Robert Tindol