New Lab Director Starts on Santa Fe Campus

September 30, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron

John Balwit (SFGI85) is a Graduate Institute alumnus and now serves as Lab Director.

John Balwit (SFGI85) is the new director of labs for the Santa Fe campus. Here he discusses how he first fell in love with the St. John’s program, the value of the St. John’s approach to science education, and what role the new quantum optics apparatus he’s been helping to assemble will play in the lab program.

How did you first encounter St. John’s?

I first came to St. John’s as a graduate student in 1983. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Looking back, I think I was trying to get a St. John’s education there even though I didn’t know about St. John’s at the time. I was studying Greek and Latin, biology, chemistry, [and] Anglo-Saxon and Russian literature. All sorts of different things. I was just ready to learn as much as I could about different aspects of human experience. I found out about St. John’s from a friend right as I was graduating, so I came out to Santa Fe and enrolled in the GI program. St. John’s really got me thinking about teaching and pedagogy, so afterwards I went into a teacher education program at UNM and got my teaching certificate. I taught science classes in Santa Fe, in private and public schools, for a number of years after that. I was interested in bringing some of the things I had experienced at St. John’s into the public school classroom to see how they could work in that context. I explored discussion-based and participation-based approaches to science. I was interested in further studying the nature of pedagogy, so I went back to the University of Wisconsin as a graduate student in educational research to better understand how to define and support effective classroom practices.

What would you say is the value of the way that St. John’s deals with the history of ideas in the sciences?

I think that St. John’s places wonder at the forefront. Especially in the labs, St. John’s looks for those places in history when some phenomena was poorly understood or first made an appearance and the initial reaction was one of wonder and amazement. Then there were attempts to understand it in different ways. Pedagogically that’s very effective, putting students in that same position. It gives you a chance to not only understand phenomena like electricity or chemistry but to also have an appreciation for the intellectual enterprise of making sense of things. I think that the process of learning how to make sense of things is something that one can take with them into whatever career or path they pursue. It’s a lifelong benefit.

How do you view the role of technology in the St. John’s lab program?

I’ve made a point since starting this job to connect with several of the former lab directors. Some of these lab directors have emphasized that one of the interesting things is the way that technologies guide the questions that you can ask. Think about Priestly looking at gases. He had something called a pneumatic trough which allowed him to capture gases in a glass bottle. That technology allowed certain questions to be asked that maybe hadn’t been asked before. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about in this position is how the apparatuses we have available can facilitate asking questions of the external world. That’s been an interest of mine for quite some time. When I applied for this job, I actually had just dropped by, not knowing the position was available, to ask if they wanted access to my wood shop. I live about half a mile away and I have a nice wood shop and thought it could be fun to work with students to build some vintage apparatuses.

Technology and the maker’s approach is something I find very wonderful in the authors that we read here. Trying to understand how to build things that help us understand the world—I’m interested in that. I started woodworking when I was still a student at St. John’s and that eventually led to an interest in electronics and robotics. It’s an interest that comes in handy here fixing Wimshurst machines and Millikan apparatuses.

My primary goal is to support the tutors, the students, and my lab assistants and their various investigations in the labs. That’s means making sure the equipment works, that supplies are available, that students and tutors have an opportunity to reproduce physical explorations of the authors that we read but also that they are provided with opportunities to pursue questions that arise. I see my role primarily as a support role.

Is there a portion of the lab program you’re particularly excited to dig deeper into?

People used to think of electricity as some unknown fluid. They began doing experiments with magnets and charged plates, trying to figure it out, but there was no clear framework for understanding this whole phenomenon. Experiments provided better and better data, but it wasn’t until Maxwell’s work that we had a precise mathematical description of the electrical and magnetic phenomena. I believe that we are in some phase of that progression with quantum mechanics.

Right now, I’m working on an apparatus for exploring quantum optics. It’s been in the works for a few years. I have a deep personal interest in quantum mechanics and the broader problem of our interpretations of phenomena. So wiring up instruments and getting things working is something I am keen on. We have all sorts of accurate and highly reproducible experiments that show us how the phenomena behave, but we don’t have a satisfying conceptual framework. It’s a wonderful chance for someone to stand in awe and wonder and an opportunity for discussion.

What will you use the apparatus for?

There are a number of experiments we’ll do. The apparatus will allow us to generate entangled photons that have properties that are very hard to understand because they seem to communicate with each other faster than the speed of light. There are experiments which seem to show events that reach into the past or future to modify other events. It’s my strong feeling that for us to really appreciate the mystery of the phenomena, the students have to have an understanding of how each piece of equipment works. If you had to look through binoculars to see a rainbow, you might be suspicious that the binoculars caused the rainbow. We are in that situation with the quantum optics apparatus. The observed phenomena are real enough, but we do need to use the apparatus to make the observations. The single photon-counting module receives a photon from a beam and makes a little electronic blip. This thing puts out blips on the nanosecond scale. If you took one second and drew it as a line on a chalkboard, and made a nanosecond one inch, the line would be over 15,000 miles long! This work is done at an extraordinarily small scale. And just the fact that we can interact with phenomena at that scale, that itself is part of the experience of the wonder. It’s also kind of ennobling as a human being to be able to experiment and make observations at that scale.

We’ve also put a lot of energy into doing work in the axolotl room. I’m learning a lot about axolotl husbandry. Axolotls are carnivores and like to eat worms, so I’ve started a worm garden. Students in the gardening club can recycle some of the cafeteria compost and feed the worms.

I’m also working with some students on creating a coding club. We’re going to be very general and introductory at first. We might do some agent-based modeling using Net Logo. I’m a big fan of easy on-ramps to coding. I’m hoping that we can also explore coding philosophically as well, not just as a tool, but thinking about what Turing machines and algorithms really are. All that’s just absolutely fascinating. In games, they have something called a physics engine. You can build one as an exercise, a ripple tank for example. Simulating a ripple tank is a wonderful exercise because it gets you to really think about the phenomena differently.

I’ve heard some faculty suggest that the purpose of the laboratory is to give people a chance to interact physically with the world in the same kind of way that when you’re in a seminar and you’re reading a book, you’re interacting with the thoughts of an author. In the labs you manipulate things and try to understand the world through that experience. The same thing can happen in coding and modeling. I’m hopeful that we can meet some of the demand and interest in coding. In both cases, you’re manipulating something to try and gain a deeper understanding. So I think there’s a lot of crossover.