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From philosophy to physics

Bridging Fellowships allow faculty to pursue fields outside their areas of expertise

Common sense tells us that causes always precede their effects. But Alyssa Ney knows that in the world described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, causation no longer appears straightforward and intuitive. Now, thanks to an innovative fellowship based in the provost’s office, the associate professor of philosophy is spending the entire semester exploring the subtleties of those concepts as a visiting member of the Department of Physics. A program known as the Bridging Fellowship has, since 1980, allowed Rochester faculty members to spend a semester in a different department—sometimes even at a different school within the University—and pursue intellectual pursuits in fields other than their own.

Studying physics is not new for Ney. She holds a BS degree in physics and philosophy, and the philosophy of physics and metaphysics are her areas of research.

Until now, much of Ney’s work has focused on the counterintuitive area of quantum mechanics; she recently edited a book on the subject, The Wave Function, and has published several papers on how quantum theory forces us to revise a common sense picture of the world.

As part of her fellowship she is attending classes and discussing with faculty members in the physics department topics such as the standard model of physics, which describes subatomic particles, and is also studying general relativity.
“This fellowship has given me time that I wouldn’t have otherwise had to struggle through textbooks and articles,” says Ney. “And everyone in the physics department has been so friendly and welcoming. I’ve learned so much, especially from my classes with Regina Demina and Andrew Jordan.”

“Bridging Fellowships have a long history within the University of opening up new and interesting opportunities for our faculty,” says Peter Lennie, provost and Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences & Engineering. “Alyssa’s project perfectly exemplifies the benefits of the fellowship, both to the individual and to the University.”

Many Bridging Fellowships have led to ongoing collaborations, books on related topics, and even new courses. Mark Bocko, Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computing Engineering, headed to the Eastman School for his Bridging Fellowship. A dedicated amateur bassoonist, Bocko spent his time studying music theory with Dave Headlam, professor of music theory.

Bocko’s fellowship and his interaction with Headlam led to a new major in audio and music engineering last year. This May, a student will graduate with this major for the first time.

Astrophysicist Adam Frank’s book The Constant Fire—Beyond the Science versus Religion Debate grew out of his Bridging Fellowship, spent in the Department of Religion and Classics. In the book, Frank delves into the history of science and religion and also examines current issues to explore the intersection among science, myth, and religion.

Claudia Schaefer, the Rush Rhees Chair and professor of Spanish and comparative literature and of film and media studies, was interested in learning how Spanish culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries assimilated innovations in science in sometimes unexpected ways. During her fellowship in 2010, Schaefer attended a class jointly taught by Brad Weslake, assistant professor of philosophy, and Allen Orr, University Professor and the Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology on Darwin and Religion.

Discussing the course, Schaefer said that it made her rethink the work she was proposing by “opening my eyes to all the places one can find science, such as new photographic methods and the science of cultural geography.” This realization led to a collaboration with Weslake on a humanities project on “Observation.” Schaefer also has a book coming out later this year entitled Lens, Laboratory, Landscape: Observing Modern Spain.

Other Bridging Fellowships have included English scholar Jeffrey Tucker exploring visual arts and culture in preparation for a course on comic books and illustrated novels and music educator Donna Brink Fox studying organizations and entrepreneurs with a view to applying it to musicians.

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