Dr. "PK": A Physicist From Birth

Dr. "PK": A Physicist From Birth


Dr. Patrick Kelly is Associate Professor of Physics at Ave Maria University. He received his B.Sc. (Honours) in Physics from the University of Waterloo, Canada and both a M.Sc. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, Canada, with a specialization in theoretical particle and gravitational physics. He undertook postdoctoral studies at the University of Toronto, the Winnipeg Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Center of Theoretical Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kelly taught at North Dakota State University before joining the faculty at Ave Maria College in 2002, moving with the institution to its permanent location as Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida. “PK” (as he’s known by faculty and students alike) can often be found cracking puns in the stairwell on his way to the Saint Michael the Archangel Physics Lab.

[Above: PK stands next to his recently published three-volume series of textbooks in the Saint Michael the Archangel Physics Lab.]

1. When I was born, the doctor said: “Mr. and Mrs. Kelly, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is you have a boy. The bad news is he drew the short straw and he has to become a physicist.” This bit isn’t quite true [PK was quick to clarify], although it might have been, as I determined that physics was to be my vocation rather early in life.  In fact, it wasn’t until much later that I appreciated how fortunate I was to have this conviction, as most people struggle to discover what they are called to do. 

2. I’ve always been interested in the fundamental aspects of nature. While all of physics is great fun, I am most drawn to study the building blocks of matter and the ways in which these constituents interact. Gravity attracts me because it seems to be the organizing principle for the large-scale structure of the universe.

3. I recently published a series of introductory textbooks. The first book, Elements of Mechanicspresents Newton’s Laws of Motion and develops energy methods for analysis of dynamics. By employing these in a variety of settings, physical models relevant to commonplace phenomena are developed and their predictions investigated.  Following Elements, the next two volumes, Properties of Materials and Electricity and Magnetism, may be read in either order. In each of these, the tools from Elements are rigorously and consistently applied to somewhat more subtle aspects of nature.  The elegance of the resultant models and their phenomenological successes underscore the efficacy and utility of the core principles of mechanics.  

4. I’d like to think that the books are challenging but ultimately reward one for the effort that one puts into reading them with careful attention.  Together, the series takes classical physics right up to the limit where it breaks down. While some might object that this stops just short of the most exciting modern developments in physics, I think that one doesn’t do students a service by teaching them about Quantum Mechanics and Relativity if they don’t first know about classical physics.

5. I had the barest glimmer of an idea for the textbooks before I came to AMU. A very primitive html version of Electricity and Magnetism (the third volume) was drafted while I was at NDSU. Upon joining AMU, I realized so much effort would be needed to get the Physics Program off the ground that my research endeavors would have to be put on hold. So what could I do? “Book writing is more flexible in terms of time and effort,” I thought – wrongly, as it turned out.

6. A feature which sets these books apart from the crowd of standard texts is that Elements is somewhat conversational, with a fair bit of syntactic repetition. That is, I say something in English and then repeat it in mathematical form and notation. In Properties and Electricity, there is a shift toward a terser style as found in intermediate-level physics textbooks. My intention in this is to assist the reader in further developing his or her capacity to read technical material in any subject.  Thus, in a nutshell, the series provides an introduction to the subject of physics, presents the basic classical models, gives one a sense of how to think like a physicist, and fosters the skills of close technical reading.

7. I was drawn to Ave Maria University because it sounded like a project to which I could and ought to lend my support. I thought that a Catholic liberal arts environment would provide fertile soil for rigorous, and vigorous, programs of study in the sciences.

8. I like all the courses I teach. Last semester, I taught PHYS 490: Advanced Laboratory, the senior capstone course, to our very first crop of graduating physics majors. Now, this is quite hilarious because I’m a theorist, and there I was conducting this laboratory offering.  Nonetheless, with help from my friends  Ricardo Rodriguez (also a theoretical physicist), James Peliska (a biochemist), and Jim Daly (an engineer), it all went rather well, with only a few mishaps along the way.  This sounds like it ought to be the set up for a joke:  “Two theoretical physicists, a biochemist, and an engineer walk into an advanced lab, and…”

9. Light travels fast: roughly 300 million meters per second. We, the senior physics majors, my friends, and I, measured it in the Saint Michael the Archangel Physics Lab last semester.  We also measured the mass and charge of an electron, and Planck’s constant, among other things. These are some of the constants appearing in the physical models that the students have employed throughout their undergraduate coursework.  Measuring these ourselves seems like a good way to cap off an undergraduate education. And it reminds us professors that we can do all the theorizing we want, but at some point we must make predictions that can be experimentally falsified.

10. The first book that made an impression on me was Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler. I read it when I was a kid in high school and it provoked me to explain special relativity to my friends.  A great number of other authors and books, ranging from The Brothers Karamazov to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were also leaving lasting impressions on my character around this time.

11. I’ve been most fortunate to have attended a tremendous number of great academic lectures and to have met many top scientists. It has been a great honour, and the occasion for many “pinch me, as I must be dreaming” moments, to have been in the same room, or at the same table, with Nobel Laureates and others whose work has decidedly earned them important places in the history of science.

12. I always tell my students that whenever you measure something, the result obtained is always a range, and is never a single number.

13. When it comes to music and art, I am somewhat of a magpie and my preferences vary from day to day. At work, I most often listen to CBC Radio 3, to hear new music. If I am computing something tricky and must focus intently for many hours, I’ll pop on some old favorites by The Cure, New Order, or The Sisters of Mercy, or new favorites by Crystal Castles.

14. My first big break was my nose—as were my second through fourth or fifth: playing basketball, football, swimming, etc.  The latest was at karate with my kids.

15. What do people associate with me? Pun-itive or pun-ultimate wordplay, depending on one’s sensibilities.

16. In writing, the most common mistake is starting too late. The second most common mistake is starting too soon.

17. My morning routine is having breakfast with my kids. My preferred snack foods are desserts made by my children, and my go-to leisure activity is doing something that involves my family (baking desserts, for example).

18. What do I look for in a student? A pulse. (OK—a spark of inquisitiveness.)

19. Teaching is about order; studying is about chaos. (Although in my classes, these are often inverted.)

20. The most memorable meal I’ve ever had was the dinner where I met my wife. You can find a description of it in Chapter 47 of my textbook, Elements of Mechanics.

21. My favorite place on campus is the Saint Michael the Archangel Physics Lab. It is the nicest instructional space in the Henkels Academic Building.