The Wright Laboratory of Physics forms the eastern leg of the Science Center. The building's 60-year-old basement laboratory complex was renovated in 1993, nearly three years before planning for the center had even begun. In the intervening years, the physics faculty snared grants to cram those labs with a new generation of high-tech equipment.

In one of those basement labs, Assistant Professor Stephen FitzGerald uses a four-year-old infrared spectrometer to study Buckminster Fullerenes, a form of carbon with a molecular shape. Fullerene molecules, or buckyballs as they are commonly known, clump together in a closed, lattice-like structure that can trap molecules of smaller elements such as hydrogen. FitzGerald's research could help determine whether Fullerenes will work as efficient gas-storage units in hydrogen-powered cars.

Meanwhile, Assistant Professor Yumi Ijiri is trying to create a better computer hard drive. With the help of a $150,000 device called a vibrating sample magnetometer, which measures the magnetic properties of materials, she is testing magnetized iron compounds, hoping to find one that can hold more data than the compounds used in today's hard drives.

The magnetometer--along with the physical layout of the new building--has fostered a better connection between the physics and chemistry departments, says Ijiri. The departments are now physically linked and share three major pieces of equipment.

Volcanoes differ in the way they erupt and in the chemical makeup of their debris. The College's new scanning electron microscope allows Assistant Professor of Geology Jonathan Castro to examine the fragments left by an erupted volcano (left), which could help predict future volcanic activity and potentially save lives. The microscope magnifies the fragments 100,000 times and provides a chemical readout of the elements. With it, Castro is searching for evidence that mountains in California's eastern Sierra Nevada range have produced eruption columns, or plumes, that can shoot 40 miles high and prove deadly when collapsing to the ground. He and other researchers have found evidence of plume production within the last 500 years, information which could shape evacuation plans for the region, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists and summer residents each year.

Although we live in a three-dimensional world, old-fashioned light microscopes provide only two-dimensional images. That discrepancy disappeared for Oberlin neuroscientists when the College installed a $225,000 confocal microscope (left) in a specially designed room. The microscope sends an image to a computer screen, offering Associate Professor Lynne Bianchi a three-dimensional view of the tiny hairs that protrude from cells that line the inner ear--a capability that helps her probe why people lose their hearing.

With the College's old light microscope, Bianchi couldn't make out how the cells lay in relation to one another, but with the confocal, she can easily rotate her samples to see how the cells are arranged. "It's a standard piece of equipment for people doing cutting-edge research," Bianchi says. "I'm doing here what I would be doing at a research university. If Oberlin didn't have the facilities, I wouldn't have been able to do this research, and I wouldn't have stayed."

Science Library and Commons
Incorporating the collections of both the old library in Kettering and the Physics Reading Room in Wright, the new Science Library (left) can accommodate nearly 87,000 volumes, almost twice as many as the old Kettering facility. The library features two group-study rooms and a computer classroom for teaching students how to find, evaluate, and use information, essential knowledge for today's research-driven curriculum.

Extremely inviting with its Mission-style wooden furniture and table lamps, the library is both utilitarian and comfortable. A curving, two-story, glass exterior wall floods the space with natural light, and cushioned window seats are roomy enough for napping.

Though primarily a facility for science research, the library is also part of the College's plan to encourage science literacy in the next generation of graduates. The hope is that the facilities will lure humanities students into the building and entice them to linger, and then, perhaps, enroll in some basic science courses.

Time will tell if the plan works, but anecdotal evidence suggests non-scientists are flocking to the library and the commons, an adjacent 4,000-square-foot lounge. The library's gate count on the first day of final exams last May exceeded that of an entire month at the old facility, says science librarian Alison Ricker. So many non-scientists have been studying in the science library that the reference desk now stocks a style guide for writing humanities papers.

"I've seen Conservatory students reading their musical scores in the science library," says Mehta, the assistant professor of chemistry.

"In the old science library, people came in, got what they needed, and left," says Ricker. "Students found it intimidating. But they like being here."

Bringing the Sciences Together
When Norman Craig, Emeritus Biggs Professor of Chemistry, arrived on campus as a freshman more than half a century ago, interdisciplinary science majors were years in the future and the departments were geographically separate. Chemistry resided in Severence, physics in Wright, and zoology in a converted church. Botany and geology operated from old houses.

When Craig retired in 2000, interdisciplinary courses and majors were commonplace and construction had begun on a Science Center with the promise of uniting most of the science disciplines--old and new--in a single building. In fact, the Science Center fulfills a vision that dates back to the completion of Wright in 1942. The physics building was to have anchored a unified science complex, but the other links were never built.

Much has changed since then, but in an age of interdisciplinary science, a unified facility makes more sense now than ever before. It may have taken 60 years, but Oberlin finally has a center for science.

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