Andrew Hastings-Black, A'08

Andrew Hastings-Black

"I was always comfortable approaching my professors to talk out things I didn’t understand… Talking about physics is, in some ways, more important than performing physics: it makes you a better communicator." (Andrew Hastings-Black)

Current occupation:
Researcher at Second Wind, Inc., a company that develops and utilizes technologies for measuring wind speeds in potential wind farm locations. I work on improving the performance of a commercially available sodar (sonic detection and ranging) device using new component design and digital signal processing.

How do you use your physics background in your line of work?
There are two big ways that my physics background prepared me for a career in sensor technology: first, experience with the mathematics that underpin all physical phenomena gives one a feel for the playing field. Studying optics and quantum mechanics made picking up acoustics really easy — they're all wave mechanics! Second, and more fundamental, is problem solving: When learning a new kind of physics, you have to figure out how to learn each new set of concepts, and then how to apply them, and how to collaborate with other people. When I'm trying to wrap my head around a new concept hoping to apply it to sodar, I feel at home navigating texts and asking questions, homing in on the kernel that will open new doors.

Did the Tufts physics department prepare you for your current career?
Yes, definitely. I was always comfortable approaching my professors to talk out things I didn't understand, or pick up the pieces of biffed exam questions. Talking about physics is, in some ways, more important than performing physics: it makes you a better communicator. Articulating what you do understand in a conversational context cements those concepts in your head, and communicating what you don't know speeds up forming concepts correctly.

What is your favorite memory of your time in the Tufts physics department?
One day in Physics 13, I asked Professor Gallagher, "Why do electrons have charge?" Professor Gallagher had this little gleam in his eye, as he does sometimes, and he responded, "That's a great question, Andrew. Nobody knows." That caused a small explosion in my head. That was the first time I had a teacher who was an expert in his field, tell me that not only did he not know the answer, he was positive that nobody knew the answer. And it was the first time that I was able to ask questions that were unanswered scientifically. The way that science is usually taught is you have to read a textbook that is by scientists, mostly old guys with beards, and they've figured everything out, and it's all in the textbook. And this was the first time that I realized there were huge questions that nobody knew the answer to, and that was so inspiring. It made me feel like physics was an adventure that I was a part of.

There was another time when I went to Professor Ford's office hours for General Relativity — I was trying to understand the expansion of the universe — and I said, "It seems to me that one way of explaining the geometry of the universe is to imagine the universe all on the surface of a balloon, and the surface of the balloon is expanding." I was prepared to hear why that wasn't what it was, but Professor Ford said, "Oh yes. It could be that." And I just sat there and felt like I was flying through space with Professor Ford. It was totally amazing to think that I had the power to come up with ideas that describe the universe, and that Professor Ford was so willing to validate the idea. He pulled me up, and all it takes is little moments like that to just totally hook you. Physics professors at Tufts did it all the time.