April 17, 2006 – Leaving the Mark C. Marin auditorium on the Antilles School campus where he had just participated in a presentation with the planet's top physicists, physics professor Edward E. Thomas Jr. was delayed by Charlotte Amalie High School sophomore Sean Francis.
"I want to know what you have achieved," Francis asked. "You know, what's the latest thing you've done?"
Thomas was stuck for an answer. However, he explained to Francis that he works with lab experiments that affect electronics – research that has resulted in cheaper methods of producing computer chips and solar panels, though that is not Thomas' ultimate goal.
The 14-year-old student isn't satisfied. He wants to know in dollar terms what Thomas is up to.
But Thomas doesn't work for monetary or practical ends. Core scientists aren't interested in products, he says. Instead, Thomas works to satisfy his curiosity about the gases in the universe. And that curiosity is seemingly endless.
In fact, he says, if he couldn't do what he does, he would have to work somewhere else to make money to afford him to do what he loves.
"I eat, sleep and dream it," Thomas says. Daytimes, he studies the stuff that those dreams are made of.
A native Virgin Islander, Thomas is a tenured associate professor of physics at Auburn University in Alabama, where he earned his doctorate in physics in 1996. He completed his master's degree in physics in 1993 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Currently he is coordinator of Auburn's plasma sciences laboratory.
A CAHS graduate himself, Thomas, 37, is the son of the West Indian Co. Ltd. President Edward Thomas and his wife, Lucia.
Thomas had been invited as an observer by the J. Epstein Virgin Islands Foundation, which cosponsored the March symposium on gravity. (See "Physicists Debate Gravity at St. Thomas Symposium").
Because of his association with the Epstein Foundation, Thomas was invited to sit in on the symposium and do some outreach work with local schools. (In June 2003 the foundation sponsored Thomas's 10th Workshop on the Physics of Dusty Plasma at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, which was attended by some 80 scientists.) During his stay, Thomas taught one of Professor Roy Wattlington's physics classes at the University of the Virgin Islands and he looked up his old mentor, CAHS physics teacher Austin Walters, and conducted one of his classes. "Walters was my inspiration," Thomas says.
He was finishing the last day of a four-day workshop featuring 20 of the top minds in physics – including Nobel Prize winners Gerardus't Hooft, David Gross and Frank Wilczek along with experimental and theoretical physics pioneer Stephen Hawking.
Nobelists t'Hooft, Gross, Wilczek, and others had just given a group of about 200 public and private high school students a brief look at their specific fields of research when Thomas spoke to the students about his own career. He encouraged the youngsters to explore science careers, saying they "can take you places."
As we sit on a picnic table outside the Antilles auditorium, Thomas is clearly humbled at the opportunity he's had to listen in on the creme de la creme of the physics world.
"My mind is going around in circles," he says. "These people are the top of the field. They speak a common language. Cosmology is perhaps the most intellectually rigorous of all disciplines in physics. It requires a special kind of mind. Even other physicists have a really hard time truly understanding the types of things they discuss every day."
He says, "The thing that I came away with was, for the first time, a real clear picture of what the important questions are in cosmology, what makes that field really a fascinating component of physics. It's hard to describe.
"It's so esoteric, even talking to my colleagues, we have a hard time finding the right words."
He marvels at the opportunity he had to chat with David J. Gross, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. Thomas says, "I have an enormous respect for him. He took an interest in what I am doing. It is so refreshing to be reminded that when you work in a particular niche, other scientists take an interest. Their eyes light up as much as yours."
Thomas' eyes first lit up when he was about 12 years old and got to spend the summer with a marine biologist uncle at the Woods Hole laboratory on Cape Cod. "He'd take me into his lab and I would get to listen to the graduate students and the undergrads. I thought they were old men – they were probably around 20 – and they wore jeans and T-shirts that was so cool.
"They wouldn't talk down to me, and I took in as much detail as I could handle. What a wonderful lifestyle, I thought."
Thomas continued, "It was at that moment I decided what I was going to do, and 26 years later, here I am and I'm taking my own students to places."
Thomas's enthusiasm is contagious. He is totally enthralled with his studies and the life that allows him to pursue them. "We [scientists] do this for fun," he says, "because it is there. When I get out of bed in the morning, I go 'Whoopee.' That is about as clear as I can make it."
What keeps Thomas up nights, he says, are questions about the transport of the dust particles in plasma. He explained that plasma is the fourth state of matter.
Like the other states – solid, liquid and gaseous -plasma has unique properties. More than 99 percent of the universe exists in the plasma state. The stars, in particular, are giant balls of plasma.
Does Thomas see the world the same way as, say, a reporter? "Well," he says, "the honest answer is no. It's not insulting to anyone; it's the result of training."
"Suppose you toss a shell at the seashore. Your body knows how to toss a shell and make it go a certain distance. What I see, at the same time, for example, is how gravity is actually acting on the shell flying through the air, the air molecules changing its course, and I would see the velocity vectors that show you how the object is moving.
"I can see it all in my head, and that's what I try to get my students to do – to picture the real world superimposed on problems like that.
That's the important part, to teach kids physics, to see the way you see it, not to bore them."
Thomas says, "My goal is to be able to make a valuable contribution to my field. I am pleased to see that somebody has read papers I've published. I check to see how many have used or read them. My reward is that someone else has used an idea of mine. It's small stuff. If 50 to 100 people have read it, I go, 'Wow.'"
Thomas' other rewards are his wife, Wendy, and children, Edward, 11, and Maya, 7.
"My wife is very patient," he laughs. "She knows it's hard to get me home from the lab." As for the youngsters' futures, Thomas says, "I don't know what they want to do. My attitude is do whatever will make you happy, will make you feel fulfilled."
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