Penn State’s Hidden Treasures: David Bohm’s Path of Infinite Potential


When David Joseph Bohm arrived at Penn State in 1936, he was taking his first academic baby step on a journey that would place him in the pantheon of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century.

Bohm, a son of a Wilkes-Barre furniture store owner who also served as the town’s part-time rabbi’s assistant, would later work with some of the leading minds in physics. He studied under Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, he was a protege of Albert Einstein, working closely with him at Princeton University. The partnership between the two was so close that some scientists speculated that Einstein considered the Penn State grad to be his successor.

There aren’t many signs that one of the greatest physicists studied at Penn State, though. There are no buildings, or even rooms named after him on campus. To be honest, I read several of Bohm’s books and papers before finding his Penn State connection. But if you look closely, you can still find some hidden Bohm treasures on campus, evidence that one of physics most intuitive, imaginative minds studied right here at Penn State.

I’ll get back to that.David_Bohm

Penn State wasn’t exactly a powerhouse in physics when Bohm arrived. It was known more as a leader in agriculture and engineering when he arrived in the mid-1930s. The number of physics students in his class was in the single digits, he estimated in one interview. But the University had a good library for Bohm’s intellectual journeys and plenty of quiet country roads for contemplative walks that allowed his ever-inquisitive mind to wander the meandering paths of theoretical physics, eventually leading to his position as a major figure in physics.

(While there’s no evidence that a punch in the nose led to any of Bohm’s discoveries, besides a more intimate understanding of Newton’s third law, F. David Peat’s biography on Bohm, Infinite Potential, has a great story about Bohm finding himself in a nose-busting melee after a campus snowball battle.)

Reminiscing about those formative years in Penn State, Bohm says:

“I was able to learn. When I got to Caltech I found I knew a lot more physics than people who had come from far better schools, like Columbia and all the bigger schools. The other point was that it was in a rural environment. Penn State, the college was the main thing that supported the town and shortly outside were nothing but farms and a little wayward mountains, wooded mountains in which I could walk, also on the farm roads. This was very important because otherwise I don’t think I wouldn’t [sic] have worked very well. I mean, if I’d gone to a city university I think it would’ve been very much more difficult psychologically.”

Those walks on those country roads and campus paths may have ambled directly to Bohm’s contribution to the Aharonov-Bohm effect, which explains how electromagnetic fields affect electrically charged particles. They may have also led to his intellectual daring, an attitude that would  influence Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, who provided one of the key tests of non-locality, which Einstein termed “spooky-action-at-a-distance,” for good reason.

At a not-so-spooky distance, however, Penn State still holds some Bohm artifacts.

Penn State’s chapter of Pi Sigma Pi , which is the physics fraternity’s third-oldest chapter, retains the researcher’s fraternity membership card from 1938. His signature is at the top of the 1938 induction list. (His serial number is 144, if you’re interested.) There’s another name — C. H. Townes — you might recognize near the bottom of the initiation list. You may know him as Charles Hard Townes, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions in quantum electronics that led to the invention of the maser and laser. Townes was a guest graduate student from Duke University studying at Penn State at the time.


Penn State’s Physics Department in the Eberly College of Science also awards the David Bohm Award to accomplished undergraduate students in physics.

Bohm’s intellectual rebellious streak may hold one of the reasons why the scientist isn’t as famous as some of the other luminaries in the world of quantum physics, like Richard Feynman and Bell. His embrace of communism as a student didn’t sit very well with the McCarthyism in the 1950s. His investigations into the connection between quantum physics and Eastern thought, along with his collaboration with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, alienated much of the scientific community and those in the “shut-up-and-calculate” school of quantum physics.

It seems, though, that people on both sides of those political and scientific establishments are beginning to re-examine Bohm’s important contributions and discipline-spanning career, which began on our quiet campus paths.

Special thanks to  Ricħard Robinett  professor of physics, as well as associate department head and director of undergraduate studies in Physics, and Director of Graduate Studies, who gave me the opportunity to photograph the cards and who showed great patience when I went to meet him at Davey Lab, instead of his actual office a few steps away in Osmond Lab. (It’s a big campus, what can I say?)

If you have any suggestions for more Penn State’s hidden treasures, leave a comment, or drop me a line.

Hitting the Oregon Trail

As association conferences go, the University Research Magazine Association’s annual meeting is at the “exceptionally good” end of the spectrum.

I think the winning formula may be an international mix of longtime colleagues who share advice and resources throughout the year; an influx of new members who keep us on our toes with fresh ideas; and a rotating conference location, allowing us to take turns hosting and our showing off our parent institutions and publications.

For instance, Penn State took its turn in 2008. (Acclaimed PSU geologist and climate change researcher Richard Alley gave a memorable presentation.)  We’ve been hosted in Maryland by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we’ve met up in Evanston and Chicago (check out the blog post!) when our meeting was sponsored by Fermilab and Northwestern University, and in Binghamton, New York last year, just to name a few.

Some URMA members (including this author, third from right) pose in front of the Corning Museum of Glass which we toured as part of our 2013 conference.

This year, our group—self-described as “the most powerful research magazine association on the planet”—hit the Oregon trail for #URMA2014.

I borrowed this image, which cleverly announces our conference hashtag, from URMA's facebook page. I suspect "tweeter par excellence" Rachel Coker (and our incoming URMA pres) is responsible!
I borrowed this image, which cleverly announces our conference hashtag, from URMA’s facebook page. I suspect “tweeter par excellence” Rachel Coker (and our incoming URMA pres) is responsible!

Oregon State University’s News & Research Communications Team (the folks behind Terra Magazine) were our hosts, led by the warm and welcoming Nick Houtman, Lee Sherman and other staff. Well-deserved kudos to them for an excellent program of speakers, and tours of the Corvallis campus and nearby research facilities, including the Hatfield Marine Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Fleet. 

The view as we crossed the Yaquina Bay Bridge, an arch bridge that spans Yaquina Bay south of Newport, Oregon.
The view as we crossed the Yaquina Bay Bridge, an arch bridge that spans Yaquina Bay south of Newport, Oregon.
You have to pose someone (in this case, me) near these Giant Sequoias in order to appreciate their size. This stand is on OSU’s lovely campus.

When the conference got rolling, we delved into design and editorial practices in joint sessions with the University and College Designers Association, explored narrative storytelling techniques and shared social media tips.

Some of the session highlights for me: Joe Kays from the University of Florida describing their efforts to train scientists to be better communicators. There were many insights shared, as well as many laughs. This classic “what not to do” Turbo Encabulator video got laughs from a room full of science communicators.

Conservation photojournalist Morgan Heim’s presentation about the techniques and guiding principles of her work was terrific, and I loved Alisa Machalek’s talk about the process of creating the exhibit Life: Magnified, scientific images showing cells and other scenes of life magnified by as much as 50,000 times. The exhibit is on display at Washington Dulles International Airport’s Gateway Gallery from June through November 2014, and the images can also be viewed in an online gallery. 

Last but not least, I enjoyed the panel discussion with Penn State’s own Dave Pacchioli, along with Sue DiBella, Laura Perry and Andrea Gibson. They discussed the importance (and occasional pitfalls) of strategic planning in research communications.

Dave Pacchioli, incoming Director of Research Communications, makes a point about planning.

When we weren’t  wrestling with words and design, we took some pretty darn cool field trips, including:

one of the world’s largest tsunami test basins


…and a trip to the historic Oregon Oyster Farms outside Newport where owner Xin Liu explained the challenges and joys of growing and harvesting several millions of oysters that will eventually make their way to restaurants all over the world.

Owner and manager, Xin Liu, explaining different techniques of seeding and growing oysters, including on a rope such as this.

If you’ve ever eaten oysters in New York City’s famous Grand Central Oyster Bar, you’ve eaten Oregon Oyster Farms finest, Liu explained, adding that the restaurant has a standing order for his Kumamoto and Pacific oysters. 

The world was our oyster. Samples (cooked, to be on the safe side) were offered and most of the URMANs helped themselves to a very delicious Yaquina Bay oyster.

Our field trip day ended with a tour and dinner at Airlie Winery, a sublime spot in the coastal mountain range on the western edge of the Willamette Valley…a spot that, as it turns out, grapes appreciate very much. And so did we.  Owner Mary Olson introduced us to her award-winning wines…


…and then gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the winery


…and then fed us a meal that showed off some of the region’s high-quality local foods, including berries and cheeses. 



Researching the effect of a winery on human subjects.

Hats off to the OSU team for making URMA 2014 so memorable. The question still remains…where will the most powerful research magazine association on the planet gather next year? Stay tuned!


Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

We had to leave the excavation early.  It wasn’t our choice and we were never in any danger.  The various universities and their insurance carrier decided we had to leave,only University of Massachusetts, Amherst didn’t go with us, but they left the next day.  We were told in the evening that we would leave the next morning, by bus, for Amman, Jordan.  No one wanted to leave, and in fact, much of the staff remained.  I was leaving over the weekend anyway, so I went with the evacuees.  We were told that we would need $30 for an entrance visa to Jordan, but that the company evacuating us was going to try to take care of that.

Reema Pangarkar and Alex Ference at the Israeli-Jordanian border. image by Alex Ference.

So, we all packed and scrounged around for money and contemplated leaving the next morning.  After breakfast, we boarded a bus that was waiting for us.  There was a driver and someone from the evacuation company.  There were also others in SUVs traveling in front of us and behind us, while we drove from Akko to Beit She’an about an hour away.  It was ridiculous, we were not in any danger in the Galilee.

We got to the border and had to go through passport control on the Israeli side, where we were charged $30 to leave the country and $6 for the bus ride across the border to Jordan.  On the Jordanian side we had to pay $60 for an entry visa.  In my mind, that is nearly $100 that we needed, not $30 and there were no ATMs.  The people who were supposedly evacuating us simply stood around and waited.  If everyone hadn’t pooled all their money, we would not have gotten through.

We finally got into the bus on the Jordanian side, complete with a car in front and back and began driving to Amman.  It isn’t that far,  something under 100 miles, but we didn’t arrive until 4:30 p.m.  The road went through lots of little towns all having market day.  Lots of fruits and veggies.  The random goat.  The worst part is that there seems to be a speed bump every 400 yards or so.  Yes, we were on a modern bus, but even it’s suspension couldn’t make the drive a comfortable one.  Hard to sleep and simply hard to sit.  We had no food on the bus, and as far as I know there was no water except what we each brought with us.

Finally, we arrived at the Amman Airport Hotel and things were looking up.  As we entered the modern lobby, we were handed large glasses of very cold apple juice. Nice.  We were each given single rooms — something most of the students would have willingly passed up, having shared rooms for the past 4 weeks.  That evening, we received our travel itineraries.  Some people were unlucky enough to have to leave for the airport for 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. flights.  I was lucky, my flight to Chicago left at 10:30 a.m. so we left the airport at 8 a.m. after a  buffet breakfast.

The evening before we had eaten at the buffet, which was for iftar, the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.  There was a ton of food and it was good.  No alcohol, but what seemed like a mile of sweets and at least that much salad and main dishes.  A lovely outdoor feast with live music.

The flight to Chicago was 13 hours long, but the airline was pretty good. The food was edible and the connection to State College left plenty of time to get through customs, eat dinner and get to the gate.  I arrived home having left the hotel in Amman 23 hours before, exhausted from two days travel.  I can’t say it was fun, but it certainly was an experience.

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