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Guest lecturer at Bethel College to kick off Einstein’s "miraculous year"

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- The year 1905 was Albert Einstein’s "miraculous" year.

Only 26, the German physicist wrote "three short but monumentally important papers" in that year, according to Tracy Tuttle, assistant professor of physics at Bethel College. One paper described Brownian motion in terms that firmly established the validity of atomic and molecular theory.

The second paper resulted in a Nobel Prize for Einstein in 1921. This one described a phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect, claiming that light must sometimes behave like a stream of particles, or "quanta." This description amounted to verification of the then new and controversial idea of quantum mechanics.

The third paper contained perhaps the greatest intellectual advancement in physics up to that point, for which Einstein is known to the average person: the Special Theory of Relativity, which contains as one of its features the famous equation E=mc2.

In light of the "miraculous year," a number of professional and government organizations are sponsoring 2005 as the World Year of Physics. To kick that off at Bethel College, Dwight Neuenschwander, professor of physics at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla., will present a special seminar on Einstein on Dec. 2.

Neunschwander has a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo and a PhD in physics from Arizona State University, but also has some previous Kansas connections. As a child and teenager, he lived in Park City (age 3-8) and Wichita (13-16), attending East High in his 11th-grade year.

And, since he’s coming to speak at a Mennonite-affiliated campus, he also reports having Mennonite ancestry. "The Neuenschwander clan came from the village of Neuenschwand in Switzerland," he says. "They fled Switzerland during the Anabaptist persecutions. Most of them settled in the Mennonite settlements of the Midwest, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and fanned out from there."

A story in Neunschwander’s family is that Great-Grandfather Neunschwander was not very religious (although his parents were believed to be devout Mennonites) but that he once said, "If I were a religious man, I’d be a beard-wearing Mennonite." A Neunschwander child who died in infancy in 1918 is buried in a Mennonite cemetery near El Reno, Okla., not far from where Dwight Neunschwander currently lives and teaches.

In addition to his teaching duties at Southern Nazarene University, Neunschwander is on the staff of the American Institute of Physics and is an editor for the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and SPS Publications. He is a public lecturer on big-bang cosmology, physics education and Noether’s Theorem.

In the mid-‘90s Neunschwander was academic director and coach for the U.S. Physics Team in the International Physics Olympiad. In 2002, SNU named him "Outstanding Science Faculty Member."

"What I think is the most interesting item in Dwight’s resume," says Bethel professor of physics Don Lemons, "is the fact that during a period in the 1990s when the physics education community was intensively studying how to reform the curriculum of the introductory calculus-based course, Dwight’s proposal was one of four models chosen nationwide to be funded by the NSF as a test case.

"This put Dwight on the map in physics teaching circles," Lemons continued. "Not only that, but it became known that of all the ideas being tried out, the one that had the most success as far as promoting student mastery of material came from Dwight’s model--basically introducing concepts in a laboratory setting before talking about them in a more traditional lecture setting."

Neunschwander will speak on "Einstein’s Miraculous Year(s)" on Thursday, Dec. 2, at 11 a.m. in Room 016 of Krehbiel Science Center on the Bethel campus. The event is free and open to the public.

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