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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Physics has new home

For years, the physics department has had to play the role of vagabonds without a permanent home. They have had to share their home with the mechanical engineering department and the department’s undergraduate teaching labs are housed across campus in Heldenfels. The department is spread across campus in almost a dozen different buildings, making department cohesion difficult.
That is, until now.
The George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy building is nearing the final phases of construction to prepare for its opening next semester.
“It’s really going to be nice for us,” Ed Fry, department head of physics, said. “Right now, we’re occupying about 11 different buildings on campus. I think it’s going to be a tremendous boom for this University to have all of this teaching space [back].”
So far, the building is more than a $100 million project, according to Fry, and Mitchell has donated $52 million to the physics department for the project.
“George Mitchell is really the one that made this all possible,” Fry said.
Mitchell was a 1940 graduate of Texas A&M and was awarded the University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1977. Mitchell is the namesake for The George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics.
Christopher Pope, distinguished professor and head of the Mitchell Institute described the institute as, “concerned with physics at the most fundamental level; trying to understand the theories and structures that underlie the universe down to the elementary scale of the subordinate particles that rule the universe. It’s trying to reconcile the whole spectrum from the sub-atomic scale to the universe itself.”
The main advantage of the building will be unification of the department in one definitive location, thus allowing for the Mitchell Institute to compete for world-class status.
“All of the great physics facilities around the world have all of their faculty and members under one roof as well as students and other visitors, and it provides for a much richer experience,” Pope said. “It’s very important because it will now house all of the members of the Mitchell Institute under one building. There are lots of things that will make it a very congenial place to work.”
A significant aspect to supporting a world-class reputation is the students recruited to participate within the department.
“I meet with [prospective] students and families from all over the United States, and it’s difficult to find conference rooms to meet with them,” said Sandi Smith, senior academic adviser for the physics department. “The new building will allow this to happen.”
Students will also benefit from the larger allocations of space.
“The physics undergraduate and graduate lounges will be much larger as well,” Smith said. “It’s going to be nice for students because we’re going to be in one central location.”
Hopefully, the move into one building will forge stronger relationships between faculty and students.
“Faculty used to go to the labs and check on students, but since we’ve moved so far away that has stopped because of the 25-minute round trip [to Heldenfels], and hopefully this new building will bring some of that back,” Fry said.
The facilities stand to have some fascinating features, according to Fry. Physics students will not be the only ones able to reap dividends from the new building.
For example, the roof of the building will support A&M’s first roof garden, a 10,000 square foot masterpiece.
“George wanted it to have all native Texan plants, so we selected for color and fragrance,” Fry said. “I think it’s going to be absolutely fantastic.”
Another feature of the building all students can enjoy will be the 102-foot Foucault pendulum that will swing from the roof of the building to demonstrate the earth’s rotation. The dome of the pendulum will be chrome painted stainless steel so visitors can see their reflections as the pendulum swings back and forth.
Probably one of the more remarkable things about the building is it will be environmentally friendly.
“The building is a green building, and there will be a tank that catches rain water and condensation from the air handlers and the water is irrigated back into the roof garden and the surrounding landscape,” Fry said.

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