Simon Knapen is fluent in Dutch, English, and French, and if you spend time with him, he’ll find a way to explain everything from dark matter to the Higgs boson particle—even if you know nothing about physics. But what’s the toughest subject he’s ever tackled? The Chinese language.
Beyond the Higgs Boson
“It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, intellectually,” says Knapen, who recently received his Ph.D. in physics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and is taking a coveted three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.
Knapen studied Chinese for three years at the Confucius Institute of Rutgers University, which offers Chinese language courses and lectures. He decided to learn Chinese because his fiancée, also a Rutgers student, is Chinese, and her parents live in China. “There’s absolutely no connection to English or any European language,” he says of the experience. “You start from scratch. It took me a year to even start getting the pronunciation right.”
For his future as a physicist, his Chinese language knowledge may be an asset. China may be aiming to become a leader in particle physics: Chinese scientists are planning to build a collider to investigate the subatomic Higgs boson—a cornerstone of particle physics. For his postdoctoral research, Knapen plans to travel to Beijing in the fall.
Understanding Our Universe
The discoverers of the Higgs boson earned a Nobel Prize in 2013, and now physicists around the world, including Knapen, are studying questions related to this milestone. Knapen’s Ph.D. research investigates a model to explain why the Higgs boson is lighter than one would expect—if, that is, it abided by the usual rules of physics. The particle remains mysterious, even after its discovery. “We know the Higgs boson exists and already know its properties to some extent,” Knapen says, “but a lot of details remain to be cleared up. In particular, we have good reasons to expect that this new particle may be accompanied by other particles that we haven’t discovered yet. So we enjoy the exciting prospect that yet another big discovery may be lurking right around the corner.”
At Rutgers, Knapen was one of four physics graduate students who helped rethink a physics course for students who aren’t science majors. The course, “Concepts of Physics for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” delves into everything from Newton’s laws to the revolutionary physics ideas of the 20th century and how they shape our understanding of the universe.
Students have praised the course (“the instructors have made it easier to understand very difficult concepts”) for its compelling mix of science and contemporary issues, and it provides another benefit, as well—hands-on teaching experience for physics graduate students.
Training for Graduate Students
Along with exploring the Higgs boson and studying Chinese, Knapen cofounded, with two other students, a teacher training program for graduate students in physics, known as Delta P. The program is designed to help would-be physics professors and teachers through an orientation session and seminars on topics such as “Making It Real for the Students” and “Tips and Tricks for Making the Most of Your Time as a Teacher.”
The project garnered Knapen and his colleagues the Richard J. Plano Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the dean’s award for innovation from the Graduate School–New Brunswick.
Up Next: A PostDoctoral Fellowship
As for the future, Knapen is looking forward to his postdoc at Berkeley. He’ll work on dark matter, the Higgs boson, and related topics. “In this field, everything moves very fast, especially right now,” he says. “I’ll work on whatever is interesting at the time.”