A New Millikan for a New Era in Science and Math
Hanging above the entrance to the Robert A. Millikan Laboratory is a sculpture of a simplified atom, its electrons circling the perfectly round nucleus in neatly defined orbits. Even in 1958, when the building was first opened as part of the Seaver science complex, scientists at Pomona had a far more nuanced view of subatomic structure, but in the more than five decades since then, a universe of new knowledge has opened up.
For instance, the research of Dwight Whitaker, associate professor of physics, involves creating a recently discovered form of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensates. The process requires supercooling a gas of subatomic particles using a precisely calibrated maze of lasers and lenses to reach temperatures close to absolute zero.
A fluctuation in room temperature of even a few degrees can require a complete re-calibration of the lenses that takes days. “That can really sink us,” Whitaker says. Maintaining the temperature in the old Millikan lab, which for most of its 55 years housed Pomona’s math, physics and astronomy departments, would be “extremely difficult.”
As part of Campaign Pomona: Daring Minds, the old Millikan building will be replaced by a new, state-of-the-art laboratory facility—the Millikan Science Hall. The first phase of the project is scheduled to begin this fall. Physics department Chair David Tanenbaum says planning for a new facility began as early as 2006. The old building “was a great facility in its day. We did good science there. “But the building did not have the temperature stability, the cleanliness, the quietness that would be desired to do some of the kinds of science that some of us do today,” Tanenbaum says.
Built in 1958 as part of the Seaver complex of science buildings, Millikan has shown its age in recent years. Problems include a cracked foundation and antiquated classrooms built for the ’50s—long before advanced optical and laser technologies and nanotechnology became major fields in physics and research. The College weighed whether to renovate or rebuild and found that, thanks largely to energy savings, the additional cost of rebuilding could be recouped in less than five years.
In addition to heating, cooling, ventilation and utility systems that will embody half a century of technological improvements, the new three-story 75,000-square-foot Millikan
Science Hall will include a digital planetarium that will offer a 360-degree projected view of the night sky. “The planetarium is a big part of our department culture,” says Claire Mackay Dickey ’14, a physics major specializing in astrophysics and astronomy who was on the committee that discussed specifications for the new building. “Having the planetarium means we can bring the big ideas that we’re studying to life for our students.”
The planetarium’s immersive projection space will be used to explore visual data by scientists of all disciplines. In addition, Pomona officials plan to use the planetarium to reach out to the surrounding community by holding cultural events there.
The new Millikan Science Hall will reflect more than changes in just technology. The philosophy of teaching has changed over the years as well. “There’s more demonstration and more activity in class,” Tanenbaum says. “We’ll have classes where the faculty member will be in and amongst the students, working in different groups and floating from group to group. That’s very hard to do in a room that doesn’t have more flexible seating arrangements.”
Dickey agrees: “There was a lot of discussion about making sure that the new Millikan would be a building that would last more than 50 years. Professors teach in a really specific way right now, focusing on collaborative learning and thinking. … So we spent a lot of time focusing on how we can make Millikan hold the most potential for many decades to come.”
Science at Pomona has not only become more collaborative, but more hands-on, with a far greater emphasis on research. In the new science building, the machine shop, which will serve all of the College’s science departments, will allow students to use computers to design their research tools. “We’re putting in 3-D printers and laser cutters and scribers,” Tanenbaum says.
Half a century ago, undergraduate science students would usually perform the same experiments everyone else did, using a set lab manual. “Now we have students who are building unique things that have never been built before,” he says. “We’re giving people the opportunity to do more creative things, and less cookbook things.”
Although the new Millikan will make it easier for each individual professor to keep things colder, it will be a warmer place overall, says Professor Jo Hardin ’95, associate professor of mathematics and chair of the department.
“The new Millikan will have a large amount of natural light and openness. The front entry will feel welcoming and will draw people in to both the mathematics and physics departments,” she says. “The outdoor courtyard also promises to be a place for the larger college community to come together.”
Most important, the building will enhance the College’s math and science programs, Hardin adds, with a design that “will encourage intellectual activity in a way that the old space didn’t.”
However, one thing about the new Millikan will remain the same—Albert Stewart’s atom sculpture will still hang over the entry, this time in front of a second-story window. And, says Tanenbaum, “You’ll be able to see it from the inside and the outside.”