In outer space, some protons and electrons can
travel millions of years alone before colliding, forming super-excited
exaggerated atoms. Tom Morgan, the Foss Professor of Physics, wants these
atoms to come back down to earth.
For the past 20 years, Morgan, an atomic and molecular physicist, has
experimented with these excited atoms known as Rydberg atoms.
With the help of Wesleyan’s Scientific Support Services, he’s designed and created
two accelerator collision systems in the basement of Exley Science Center.
By shooting a laser beam at a series of regular atoms, he can create Rydberg
atoms, which escalate the electron’s orbit 10,000 times further than in a
regular atom. These giant atoms, with elusive properties, are ideal to study
to gain insight into the connection between quantum mechanics and classical
“What I’ve always been interested in is what I learn about an atom or
molecule on a fundamental level,” Morgan says from his second floor office
in the Exley Science Center. “I want to learn about their structure, their
dynamics, and how the size of an atom affects its behavior.”
the years the Research Corporation, the Department of Energy, and the
National Science Foundation have supported his research. On Aug. 15, the NSF
awarded a grant of $200,000 for laser research equipment.
Morgan began his career at Wesleyan 33 years ago by studying properties of
fast protons colliding with alkaline atoms magnesium, calcium, strontium and
barium. In the mid-80s, he began investigating Rydberg atoms in hydrogen and
helium. Recently, his research interests include molecular spectroscopy and
dynamics of highly excited Rydberg states in strong electric fields and
plasma environments. His most recent contributions include studying Rydberg
argon dynamics and the first measurement of a scaled-energy recurrence
spectrum for molecules.
Morgan says he is among about a hand-full of researchers in the world
studying scaled-energy laser-excited atoms in strong electric fields and the
first to apply the technique to hydrogen molecules.
“When you’re doing cutting-edge research, it’s not going to be easy,” he
says overlooking his self-designed laser-accelerator control panel.
“Everything has to be perfect to get the right conditions and results. Doing
this type of work requires not only brains, but a lot of patience and good
Lutz Huwel, chair of the
Physics Department and professor of physics, says Morgan's positive and
constructive attitude in the classroom stands out just as much as his love
"Tom loves physics of all kind above all the Rydberg atoms and molecules
he and his dedicated group of students are investigating in his lab," Huwel
says. "He is always on the lookout for interesting things to do and to talk
about. He has a knack for getting students excited about physics."
In October, one of Morgan's undergraduate
students, Jack DiSciacca '07, will be presenting his research results at a
national laser science conference in Rochester, N.Y. DiSciacca is a
Goldwater Scholar for the academic year 06-07 and is writing his senior
honors thesis on Rydberg hydrogen molecules.
Morgan, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., says his interest in
physics came about in high school, when his algebra teacher said he had
“quite the ability in math.”
“I perked up at this, because this person thought I was actually good at
something. That was my defining moment. It gave me the confidence to pursue
math, and later physics,” he says.
He studied math and the sciences at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. and
Montana State University, Bozeman and received his Ph.D from the University
of California, Berkeley in 1971. His thesis covered the collisional
formation and destruction properties of excited hydrogen molecules.
In 1973, after two years at Queen’s University of Belfast, N. Ireland,
Morgan came to Wesleyan, and began teaching general physics classes, more
advanced classes for majors and graduate level courses. Morgan has published
more than 85 articles in leading physics journals. He’s overseen dozens of
students pursuing Ph.D degrees and senior honors theses, who often report
their findings at national conferences and publish in scientific journals.
Morgan, who also is Wesleyan’s Academic Secretary, served as the Chairman of
the Physics Department for five years, and the Dean of the Sciences and
Mathematics for three years. He has held several visiting research
appointments at other universities, including the University of Paris,
France, the University of Colorado, Boulder, the University of Mexico,
Mexico City and at Dublin City University, Ireland, where as a Fulbright
Senior Scholar he established a physics undergraduate student exchange program with
“Wesleyan was great when I arrived here, and it’s great now,” Morgan says.
“The teaching and research environment is wonderful and my colleagues are
superb, but what I really love about Wesleyan is the students. It is the
bright students in the classroom and in my lab that have kept me here all
He is presently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Queen’s University,
Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he is collaborating on research programs
devoted to plasma physics. He’s also a fellow of the American Physical
Society and the Institute of Physics in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
He’s also a four-time marathon runner, a big New York Yankees fan, and a singer/musician for an Irish
Morgan is one of three in his family to work at Wesleyan. His wife, Janet,
retired in 2003 from Information Technology Services, and his son, Brent
Morgan, is an instructional media specialist for ITS and the Center for the
Arts. But after more than three decades here, Tom has no plans to leave
Wesleyan just yet.
“No, I can’t even think about (retirement),” he says, turning the knobs on
his laser lab control panel. “I am having too much fun."