Physics Department Hosts Annual Symposium

The Wheaton College physics department hosted its annual Science Symposium.


Amanda Morris | News Editor

On Wednesday and Thursday, March 26 and 27, Wheaton College’s physics department hosted its annual Science Symposium.

This year’s theme was titled “Nuclear Energy: Realizing the Promise.” According to Darren Craig, associate professor of physics and department chair, the theme was chosen for two reasons. “First, we wanted to understand why nuclear energy may hold promise as an energy source for the future despite the problems we often hear about. In that sense, ‘realizing’ means becoming aware of the promise,” Craig wrote in an email. “Second, we wanted to hear about the status of some of the innovative ideas that could address current downsides of nuclear energy — safety, waste, expense. In that sense, ‘realizing’ means the challenge of turning the promises into a reality.” 

According to Craig, the physics department began working on the Symposium and brainstorming ideas about a year ago. “We wanted to do something in the energy arena and nuclear energy soon came to the top of our list,” Craig said. “Although physics and engineering connect with every kind of energy generation, we felt that nuclear energy was the least likely to be addressed by any other department and hence we could contribute in a unique way.” Craig mentioned that there is much misinformation circulating about nuclear energy, and the department wanted the symposium to be educational while highlighting the “exciting” innovations in nuclear energy that could “make it better.”

On Wednesday, Robert Bishop, professor of physics and philosophy and John and Madeleine McIntyre endowed professor of philosophy and history of science, gave a speech in chapel. In the evening, a screening of the film “Pandora’s Promise” took place and a panel discussion followed. Panelists included Denis Demoss of Sargent and Lundy LLC, Christine Folch, assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton, and Dr. Dave Grabaskas of Argonne National Laboratory. 

On Thursday, there were three discussions that focused on this year’s theme. Dr. Paul Wilson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison spoke on the subject of “Technical and Socio-Political Drivers for Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Dr. Ivan Maldonado of the University of Tennessee discussed “A View of the Near-Term Evolution of Light Water Reactor Technology” and Grabaskas discussed “Advanced Reactors: Safety and U.S. Experience.”

While the symposium included a variety of events throughout the two days, Bishop wrote in an email that he found two events particularly interesting. “I thought one of the most important highlights was how the panel discussion after viewing “Pandora’s Promise” and Prof. Wilson’s presentation brought out the fact that technical solutions are not the only thing that matters when thinking about nuclear energy. The social and political issues raised by nuclear energy have to be carefully thought through and addressed,” Bishop said. 

Craig mentioned that while he enjoyed every part of the symposium, he appreciated all of the knowledge presented during the two days. “A highlight for me was having so much expertise on campus and available for questions and answers. I thought the student questions to our panel and our speakers were great and I think the responses were informed and thoughtful,” Craig said. Craig wrote that he hopes many of Wheaton’s students were “inspired” to take on the challenge of “energy production for the future.”

On a similar note, Bishop wrote, “I hope everyone who attended the symposium came away with a deeper understanding that nuclear energy really can be a significant player in solving our energy crisis in environmentally friendly ways.” Bishop continued, “At the same time, I hope everyone also learned that we can make headway on the social and political issues (as) we pierce through the ideology and misinformation surrounding nuclear energy. As Christians, we should aim for getting to the truth on these issues rather than reflecting on the hype trumpeted by both pro and anti-nuclear advocates.”

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