Fourth HMC Alumnus Wins National Physics Award

Photo courtesy of Harvey Mudd College.

Calvin Leung HM ‘17, a mathematics and physics double-major, recently became the fourth Harvey Mudd College student to win the American Physical Society’s LeRoy Apker Award, which recognizes undergraduate achievement in the field of physics.

Physics departments across the nation are each allowed to nominate one student for the award. Six students are selected as finalists to present their research for the Apker Award Selection Committee. Out of the six, two win the award and $10,000, split evenly between the recipient and their school’s physics departments.

“Calvin was spectacularly successful at achieving the goals set by [physics professor Jason] Gallicchio and their collaborators, but he also defined some quite original directions for the research, based on things he had learned in HMC coursework and in his own independent reading,” Theresa Lynn, chair of the Harvey Mudd Department of Physics, wrote in an email to TSL.

Previous recipients of the award from include Stephanie Moyerman HM ’06, Nathaniel Stern HM ’03, and Gwen (Bell) Porter HM ’98. Harvey Mudd has also had five LeRoy Akper Award finalists: Jaron Kent-Dobias HM ’14, Neal Pisenti HM ’11, Andrew Higginbotham HM ’09, Gregory Minton HM ’08, and Joseph Checkelsky HM ’04.

“Harvey Mudd has a very strong tradition of research done in close collaboration between students and faculty members, as part of the HMC and Claremont-wide tradition of student-faculty interaction both in and out of the classroom,” Lynn wrote.

Leung also noted the importance of HMC professors in his path through physics.

“I was ready to do anything besides physics until second semester of my freshman year at Mudd,” he said. “Then I took a great class, professor Tom Donnelly’s Introduction to Mechanics, and that changed everything. I could imagine making a living in that.”

“The Mudd environment really fosters good undergraduate research. I think the two most important facets about Mudd as a research environment is that there are no full-time grad students, and that professors are willing to spend time with you, even in the lab,” Leung added. “It’s very different to work on something tough and important with support if you need it, than for example, to work on a side project under the supervision of a grad student who’s working on all the interesting stuff.”

Porter, the 1998 award recipient, said that she thinks Mudd is well-positioned to win because of its few major options  and lack of graduate students.

“All the research is done by undergrads, which is an amazing opportunity,” Porter said.

Leung received the LeRoy Apker award for his thesis “Quantum Foundations with Astronomical Photons.” He was chosen by the selection committee “for development and experimental implementation of astronomical random number generators for loophole-free tests of Bell’s inequality and other applications in quantum fundamentals, astrophysics, and tests of general relativity.”

Leung’s research involved the creation of an astronomical instrument that generates random bits – ones and zeros – from quasars, which are galaxies 10 to 12 billion lights years away that are extremely bright. “This is significant considering the universe itself is 14 billion years old,” Leung said.

According to the Harvey Mudd College website, “the work was motivated by the goal of closing a potential loophole in Earth-based tests of quantum mechanics. These so-called ‘Bell tests,’ named after their discoverer, typically use terrestrially generated random bits to control the measuring devices that observe pairs of entangled particles.” However, using bits generated by quasars rather than local events on Earth increases the likelihood of accuracy when making predictions of quantum physics.

According to Leung, HMC professors read over and commented on his thesis before he submitted it. He spent seven to eight hours a day working on the project, which was a total of 95 pages when submitted. In addition, he worked with University of California, San Diego assistant research scientist Andy Friedman, scientist Hien Nguyen from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dave Kaiser.

Leung eventually tested his work by renting a telescope from Table Mountain Observatory, an astronomical observation facility operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Using the telescope and his device in conjunction, he showed that he could indeed generate random bits using his device.

Leung “took [the project] in some amazing new directions, including re-purposing our instrument to look at spinning neutron stars to also test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity,” said Gallicchio, who supervised Leung’s project.

Currently, Leung is taking a gap year at the University of Vienna before pursuing his doctorate at MIT. In the future, he wants to teach.

“Taking a class and being in an environment where teaching mattered to the professors really made a difference to me as a student,” he said. “I want to be at the dispensing end of that at some point – it’s just a really natural way to respond to good fortune and to pay it forward.”

Success is “not always a case of knowing how to do the hardest textbook problems or knowing the most advanced knowledge – you need to be in the right time and place, and you need to develop a sense of what questions are interesting and worth pursuing,” Leung said. “I was lucky enough to stumble upon that.”

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