New Physics and Astronomy department head already a driving force


John Finley

Prof. John P. Finley, department of Physics and Astronomy, stands with his office painting of Sir Isaac Newton.

Their eras may differ – along with their hairstyles – but Physics and Astronomy Prof. John P. Finley has always felt a kinship with Sir Isaac Newton, the Godfather of modern science.

Newton, of course, is a hero to scientists all over but a mysterious, damaged painting rolled up in the Physics Building offices that came to Finley’s attention has brought him closer to the legendary 17th century thinker. The old piece of artwork stems from British artist John Riley, the royal painter for England in the late 1600s. Newton certainly sat for the original piece. The painting Finley found is attributed to Riley and is believed to be several hundred years old.

Finley had the Purdue Galleries have the painting restored by a company in Chicago and it looks as good as new as it hangs in his Physics and Astronomy department head office. Finley started this position Aug. 1.

With Sir Newton looking over him, Finley has experience and foresight for his new position.

“Learning lots of new things,” Finley said. “I wanted to do this because I wanted something different and I wanted a challenge. It is both.”

A department institution since 1993, Finley’s research interests focus on the origins of cosmic rays and soft X-ray backgrounds, the evolution of galactic supernova remnants and their impact on the interstellar medium, and optical, X-ray and gamma ray studies of compact objects. Recent work helped with systems at VERITAS, a ground based gamma-ray observation facility on Mt. Hopkins in southern Arizona. The Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System was created to help astronomers answer fundamental questions about the cosmos.

Finley said the department is well positioned in fields like high-energy physics, condensed matter theory and nuclear physics as well as the recent push in atomic, molecular and optical physics and astrophysics. The recent addition of Astronomy to his department’s official name is already paying off and he expects it to continue to do so while he is head.

“We want to tap into more graduate students,” Finley said. “We get students interested in astronomy or astrophysics. The name helps land them here. Without the name, you miss out on a whole cartel of students.”

One of Finley’s goals as department head is to improve the infrastructure of the Physics Building, especially the “older” south wing. Originally built in the 1940s, that half of the building has potential to create new space for faculty and students. The “old” wing was completed in the late 1960s.

“It’s all to enable the research effort,” said Finley, adding that renovations would fulfill goals of the current capital campaign.

Another research goal is to expand the department’s presence in Birck Nanotechnology Center and nanoscience. This burgeoning field of microscopic matter manipulation would flip Newton’s long curls but it is a rising field. Finley and the Department of Physics and Astronomy are ready.

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