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Researching Hurricane Katrina vibrations

CONWAY, Ark. (August 7, 2006) – Three Hendrix College student researchers from Arkansas and a physics professor are experiencing one of the many aftereffects of last fall’s ferocious hurricanes.

Adam Jacobs, a sophomore from Benton, Neil Kopper, a junior from Conway, and Caitlyn Bagby, a senior from Russellville, are participating in a summer research project that examines the vibrations or noise introduced into the Earth by hurricanes. When Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes hit the shore of the Gulf of Mexico last year – over 300 miles away from Conway – Hendrix’s ring laser responded to the vibrations they caused on the earth’s surface.

The laser’s response to the hurricanes caused Hendrix physics professor Bob Dunn to begin researching the effect. The college houses one of three of the largest active ring lasers in the world. This summer, Dunn and the students measured the Earth’s continual vibration or humming introduced by the hurricanes.

While many scientists study Earth’s vertical and horizontal movements during earthquakes and other natural disasters, Dunn and the student researchers hope to learn how these natural disasters create local rotations in the surface of the Earth. Dunn and the students are collecting data of the Earth’s movement from the basement of Hendrix’s physical science building where the ring laser is located.

After joining the Hendrix staff in 1988, Dunn began involving students in laser optics research. The emphasis is now on exploiting the incredible sensitivity of large ring lasers. In the 1970s, he began research on ring lasers with the U.S. Air Force. That effort involved small gyroscopes, which are about two to three times the size of a fist. Small ring lasers are currently replacing conventional gyroscopes in many navigational applications.

The research project is funded by the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium with help from Hendrix’s Odyssey Program, a curricular program that gives students and faculty the chance to participate in experiential learning projects at home and abroad.  The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium has continuously funded research on aerospace fundamentals and research problems for Hendrix faculty and students as well as for several other colleges and universities in Arkansas.

The current ring laser at Hendrix works well, but the noises of the surrounding campus and busy streets of Conway cause vibrations that can distort its readings. Dunn and the two students are building a newer and larger ring laser in a more secluded and quiet location outside of Conway. Construction problems have delayed the completion of the new laser, but they expect to have it finished by the time school starts in August.

“I consider myself very lucky to work at an institution with students of such a high caliber,” Dunn said. He praised his students’ enthusiasm and eagerness to help with the research.

Hendrix, founded in 1876, is a selective, residential, undergraduate liberal arts college emphasizing experiential learning in a demanding yet supportive environment. The college is among 150 colleges featured in the 2007 edition of the Princeton Review America ’s Best Value Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884.  For more information, visit

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Media contact: Judy Williams, 501/450-1462,