Noble enjoying an alpine sunset
Noble and his wife kayaking in Maine
Noble and his wife hiking in the Alps
Andrew Noble hopes to use his knowledge of physics in a way you might not expect. He is working to help preserve the diversity of life on Earth. Noble, who did his graduate work in theoretical particle physics, is now applying the physics to a variety of questions, including how species coexist in ecosystems and how carbon moves between various organisms living in the Chesapeake Bay. The relationship between physics and ecology may not be obvious, but Noble says his background provides excellent tools for tackling these problems. He found that "Physicists are great at connecting mathematics with interesting scientific problems in all sorts of disciplines."
Noble got hooked on physics early in life. He recalls his father reading to him on road trips from Richard Feynman’s mischevious memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and being fascinated by Stephen Hawking’s descriptions of elementary particles and black holes in A Brief History of Time. Noble also recalls an excellent high school physics teacher who made physics fun and engaging. For example, the teacher dressed in combat fatigues for an activity that involved shooting potatoes out of guns. "By the time I got to college, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to study physics," says Noble, who graduated in 2000 with honors from Carleton College in Minnesota.
After college, Noble joined Teach for America and taught physics for two years at Southwestern High School in Baltimore, an experience he describes as "the most rewarding and the most challenging thing I’ve ever done." The rewards came from engaging his students in exciting opportunities like participating in a robotics competition, where one of his teams took second place out of a field of thirty. On another occasion, when his students were struggling with graphing skills, he had them arrange their desks in the center of the classroom to form "graph paper," on a more human scale. Noble says, "Teaching in an under-resourced school system sparked a lot of my creativity and resourcefulness, which have continued to be great assets during my research career."
Noble did his graduate work at Cornell University in New York, focusing on what he calls "the interface between the very small and the very large." By combining data from particle collider experiments and astrophysical measurements, he investigated results that physicists searching for an important particle called the Higgs boson are hoping to find. Meanwhile, Noble remained involved with education by recruiting future teachers for Teach for America, serving as a teaching assistant in various courses, and co-directing a tutoring project at a local juvenile correction facility.
After graduate school, Noble switched from studying particles to studying ecosystems. He explains, "As I finished graduate school, I realized that while finding the Higgs boson would be a truly beautiful physical result, I could not foresee any practical impact it would have on the larger world. At the same time, I noticed I was spending most of my free time with the ecology students, because they were doing the things I liked to do, like hiking, kayaking, and biking. So I decided to switch to a field where there was more of a chance of interacting with the outdoors."
Currently Noble is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, but he will soon be moving to the University of California, Davis to join a research group. His dream is to teach at a small college and run an interdisciplinary research program with undergraduates. He says, "The most exciting research…is no longer in the traditional disciplines, but at the boundaries between them. It’s amazing how much there is to do in theoretical ecology. It’s truly a new frontier of physics—and it’s incredibly important. I think the loss of biodiversity is this century’s most pressing problem, and physicists have had almost nothing to say about it." Andrew Noble is hoping to change that.