Prof. Joel Franklin

Prof. Joel Franklin

Prof. Franklin Named To Borders Chair

Chair in physics department honors James Borders ’63.

By Randall S. Barton | December 3, 2020

Prof. Joel Franklin ’97 [physics 2005–] has been appointed the James A. Borders Chair in Physics. The Borders chair—established thanks to a generous gift from Deborah Borders memorializing her husband—recognizes the achievements as a physicist of Jim Borders ’63 and the role Reed played in his intellectual life.

“My husband had a lifetime love of learning, and he always liked to share his knowledge,” says Deborah. “Jim went to Reed College and thought they had done an excellent job for him and wanted to share that with the world. He started making donations, and back in 1975 decided that when he died, he wanted a legacy at Reed to continue.” Together, Jim and Deborah made gifts totalling $1.5 million to establish the chair.

Hailing from Akron, Ohio, Jim blossomed at Reed. He savored both campus life and engaging with Reed professors. He wrote his thesis, “Certain Aspects of the Photoconductivity of Pure Single Zinc Oxide Crystals,” with Prof. Ken Davis [physics 1948–80]. Years later, Jim and Deborah honored Prof. Davis by establishing a scholarship in his name.

It was Davis who convinced Jim that he should consider pursuing the sciences—specifically physics—rather than the humanities. “Jim enjoyed the humanities program and thought that would be kind of fun,” Deborah says. “His father had a PhD in chemistry and had always pushed science. Then Ken Davis got hold of Jim, and between his father and Ken, he became a physicist.”

Jim went on to earn a doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois and began his career at Sandia National Laboratory, one of three research and development laboratories  run by the National Nuclear Security Administration. During World War II, Sandia worked with Los Alamos National Laboratory to create the atomic warhead. “After the war,” Deborah explains, “they continued to work on it and try to keep the Cold War cold.”

At Sandia, Jim was a pioneer in developing energetic ion analysis of materials and in the applications of ion implantation to non-semiconductor materials. His research group developed a noninvasive blood glucose monitor for diabetes using technology originally developed to measure the aging of explosives in nuclear weapons.

He was in charge of one of three teams who reinvestigated the explosion in a gun room of the U.S.S. Iowa in 1989 that killed 47 sailors. The navy had originally concluded that the explosion was deliberately set off by a member of the crew. Jim and three other scientists from Sandia were asked to take another look.

“The navy had done an investigation and had come to the conclusion that the only way the gun would have exploded was if someone had used a detonator to set it off,” Deborah explains. “They were blaming one of the sailors. The family of that sailor was adamant that he hadn’t done it and contacted their congressperson. She, in turn, forced Congress to hire Sandia Labs to review and investigate the explosion.

“Jim’s group was responsible for analyzing what was in the rotating band of the shell. On the morning when the investigators were scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and a House subcommittee, the people in charge of the explosion were able to determine that not necessarily was there a detonation device. They could replicate the explosion without it.”

The investigation resulted in an apology from the navy to the family of the sailor accused of setting off the blast.

Prof. Franklin is the first to hold the Borders chair of physics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Reed, a master’s degree from Brandeis University, and a PhD in computational mathematics from Stanford University. He was also a visiting researcher in structural biology and chemistry at the Pasteur Institute and did postdoc work at MIT.

At Reed, Prof. Franklin has taught general physics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, computational methods, and general relativity. His research is focused on extensions of general relativity and their observational implications. In addition to numerous papers, he has written four books: Advanced Mechanics and General Relativity, Computational Methods for Physics, Classical Field Theory, and Mathematical Methods for Oscillations and Waves.

In 2015, Jim and Deborah established the James Borders Physics Student Fellowship, designed to help physics majors planning to go on to graduate school. Summer research allows students to ponder difficult problems for long periods of time, apply various tools, and come at them again from a different angle. Even if grad school is not in their sights, participating in research can provide a competitive edge in the job market. The fellowship requires students to write up the results of their research—honing their presentation skills.

Prof. Franklin chaired the department when the summer fellowship was set up and interacted with Jim in that capacity.

“One thing I thought was admirable was his insistence that the summer student write up a short report to be delivered to him,” Franklin said. “One of the very first summer students wrote on a topic from neuroscience, well outside Jim’s own areas of expertise, but I know he read the report carefully and enjoyed it.” That report was “Effect of Voltage Dependent Vesicle Release on the Information Capacity of Auditory Neurons” by Jay Collins ’15.

Other recipients of the Borders Fellowship include Thomas Malthouse ’20, who spent a summer working with Prof. Lucas Illing [physics 2007–] on amplitude death, a fascinating emergent dynamic phenomenon in which identical nonlinear oscillators, if coupled together in a network, will cease to oscillate under certain conditions.

Ella Banyas ’17 worked with Prof. Illing developing a model to describe the dynamics of an optoelectronic oscillator with nonlinear time-delayed feedback. All physical systems, from electronic circuits to traffic flow, are inherently subject to finite time delays. Many systems exhibit nonlinear responses to stimuli, further complicating the task of describing these systems analytically or numerically. In a continuation of the work of Cristian Panda ’12 and Lindsay Sonderhouse ’13, Ella and Prof. Illing constructed an optoelectronic oscillator with nonlinear time-delayed self-feedback.

Beckett Cummings ’20 was part of a team that successfully ran a ChaNGa simulation to show that, assuming certain initial conditions, the force of gravity can produce a barred-spiral structure—like the luminous whirlpool of the Milky Way—from a galaxy consisting of nothing but gas.

Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Giving Back to Reed, Institutional, Professors