In childhood, C.D. Hoyle made things all the time—model airplanes, rockets and electronics kits. Today he co-owns a four-seat Piper Cherokee, which he services himself. He flies back and forth to the University of Washington in Seattle (where he earned his Ph.D.) to partner with colleagues and students in gravitational research, a big benefit to his own students back at HSU.
As an undergraduate, C.D. worked in the nuclear physics lab at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, making wire chambers, which are particle detectors. He emphasizes this same kind of hands-on approach in Humboldt State's gravitational research lab. He gives his new students a choice of projects, based on their personal interests—writing computer code, designing and machining parts, working on optics or electronics, analyzing data. All of these activities may go into constructing an experiment. Students often try different things to see which one they like most, and that can take the better part of a semester. "Some of our students work in the lab two or three years, because they enjoy being creative. Typically, solutions in the physics lab are not cut and dried. Our students definitely enjoy problem solving and that's true of physics in general, not just gravity research."
Although physics may sound like a highly concentrated field of study, in fact it offers a broad set of skills that can be used in many different jobs. "Would you believe," C.D. says, "there are lots of physicists on Wall Street? Yes, indeed, there are. They have the statistical analysis tools you need for predicting market trends."
C.D. knows physicists, some of them his former students, who are teachers, software engineers, computer game motion designers, aerospace professionals at Boeing and researchers in spacecraft design and construction at NASA. "You can do a lot more with a physics degree than you might think," he says. "It can land you anywhere an engineering degree can. Don't be dissuaded by how mechanical your high school physics class may have been. In fact, it's a very creative and versatile field."
Although gravity research became his specialty, C.D. experienced the diversity of the discipline himself in his climb up the physics ladder to his doctorate. He got a taste of nuclear physics, condensed matter physics and solid state research in materials science. "I went through various phases of interest and I spent many of my grad school days machining parts and building circuits, constructing things myself. That's why I give my undergraduate students a sense of the variety of things they can do as we build our experiments together."
Ultimately, it was the mysteries of gravity that intrigued him the most and he enjoys the pendulum experiments that are used to probe its secrets. "Gravity and its relationship to the universe-at-large makes it still the most mysterious of nature's four fundamental forces. We know a lot about Einstein's theory of relativity, but we don't know why it doesn't seem to mesh with quantum mechanics. That's what we're trying to understand in the lab here at HSU."
C.D. says his undergrads are usually people with a deep interest in nature in general who also enjoy the satisfactions of basic research. "You have to enjoy working independently and being creative, because you don't find solutions to problems right off the bat. It's the mystery that intrigues you, that keeps you fascinated."