Dr. John Mason

It’s a crisp fall day in Gunnison and the 13 students in Dr. John Mason’s introductory physics class are hard at work outside. Students focus on a list of experiments as Dr. Mason delves into an explanation of the physics of rotation. The lecture is like any other physics lecture you’d expect in a normal class, but Dr. Mason is using an unconventional tool to demonstrate his point: a merry-go-round.

“I have to admit that some people were a little skeptical at first when I said I wanted to install a merry-go-round on campus,” Dr. Mason says, “but once they see how well it helps students understand the fundamentals of physics, they get it.”

Dr. Mason came to Western in 2010 after spending three years conducting post-doctoral research at Harvard University. His research focused on theoretical physics, which includes quantum mechanics and relativity.

“I just love physics, specifically theoretical physics,” he says.  “The realm of physics I’ve been studying involves things that are very small and move very fast.  I like how math emerges in physics and how it advances our understanding of nature. At the more advanced level the math really starts to take on a central role and I like that.”

Dr. Mason earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at Colby College and his PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz. After 3 years conducting research at Harvard, he missed teaching physics and decided to return to the classroom.

 “I chose to work at Western because I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts school,” he says, “I knew I didn’t want to teach to huge auditoriums and manage excel spreadsheets of 200 students. The wonderful thing about Western is that it’s essentially a private college experience at a public university price.”

Western offers a physics minor as part of its natural and environmental science curriculum. Dr. Mason teaches everything from introductory classes to quantum mechanics and modern physics.  Upper division classes average just seven students.

Outside at the merry-go-round, eight members of Dr. Mason’s class are spinning in circles as the rest of the class takes turns measuring the force required to get the merry-go-round moving.

“Rotation is intrinsically a 3 dimensional process,” Dr. Mason says. “I can draw pictures on the board, but they will always be just 2D. Nothing compares to going out there and working with something where you can actually watch it rotate, get on it and really feel the rotation. If something in physics is 3D in Nature, you might as well work with a 3D object that rotates.”