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Nerds of Mizzou

Big wheel in low-temperature physics

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 15, 2009
Rob Duncan, a world-renowned physicist and MU's vice chancellor for research, takes a spin around the Quad on his reproduction 1800s highwheeler bicycle.

Rob Duncan, a physicist and MU's vice chancellor for research, takes a spin around the Quad on his reproduction 1800s hiwheeler bicycle.

Rob Duncan belongs to a class of researchers in fundamental physics who explore what they don’t understand because they fundamentally don’t understand it.

“We go after things that absolutely perplex us,” says Duncan, who is MU’s vice chancellor for research and a professor of physics.

Duncan’s work exists on the frontier of understanding, with research so fundamental that applications for the theories don’t yet exist. It’s how science makes giant leaps forward.

After the discovery of electricity, it remained a curiosity for decades; no one suspected its eventual use. Similarly, Duncan, through his administrative role, supports investigators as they study living systems to decode some fundamental questions of our time — how cells signal and control themselves and how that traces back to the genetic code.

“What we’re discovering will be critical to great advances in the future in ways we haven’t figured out yet,” he says. “As we start to understand systems biology, we will understand the origin of many diseases and how to intervene to prevent them.”  

Shocking discoveries

There were signs early in Duncan’s childhood that his unusual inquisitiveness was becoming a passion for exploring the unknown.

His favorite toy as a 2-year-old was anything that plugged into an electric outlet. His dad, Dan, questioned the purchase of so many child-development toys when his firstborn simply wanted to discover how things worked. Duncan was fascinated by vacuum cleaners and asked for long extension cords as gifts (to electrify the yard).

“We didn’t identify it as smartness. You couldn’t take your eyes off him,” his mom, Inez, says. “We needed to channel him in the right direction so he wouldn’t destroy the world.”

For the most part, they succeeded. Duncan did, however, suffer his share of shocks, and in one session he flooded the basement after a dishwasher incident. “I was hell on home appliances,” Duncan says of his youthful curiosity. “I just started to take them apart.”

Near age 11, he began leveling the balance sheet by repairing his parents’ appliances. At 13, he received an underage work permit to repair radios and TVs at an electronics shop — for 50 cents an hour — and soon was adept enough to fix boiler controllers and assorted machinery at the family’s sawmill in St. Joseph, Mo. 

Rob Duncan

"This job is more of an extreme adventure than I realized," Duncan says about his position as MU's vice chancellor for research, which he's held since fall 2008. "There are challenges and opportunities beyond my wildest dreams."

In high school, Duncan entered a research paper in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, now the Intel Science Talent Search, which is casually called the “baby Nobel” competition. He became one of 40 scholarship winners nationally, a nice addition to his Junior Achievement Award.

“Rob can walk into a room and immediately be the smartest person there,” says brother Drue, who watched his friends congregate around Rob to see the latest computer and hear the “nerdy information” he dispensed. “When it’s your brother, it seems normal,” he says.

Enerdgetic activity

“Nerdvana,” is Duncan’s description of his collaborations with physicists in stimulating environments such as NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory. His research there and elsewhere in fundamental physics has received funding of $8 million from various sources and spans a variety of potential applications from alternative energy to cancer surgery.

An expert in measuring energy, Duncan is internationally recognized for research in low-temperature physics, also known as cryogenics. (He offers no comments on the future of resurrecting Walt Disney and baseball star Ted Williams.)

Consider the difficulty of measuring tiny temperature changes near absolute zero of -450 Fahrenheit, the temperature at which, like winter in Wisconsin, movement of molecules significantly slows.  

Duncan worked for years to develop ultra-sensitive measuring equipment — literally the best thermometer ever made in its temperature range — for a proposed experiment in space aboard the 2005 International Space Station. Through such projects, Duncan and team, including one of his former students, developed fundamental measuring science now used for future discoveries.

Pentagon on Line 1

When Duncan encounters something he doesn’t understand, it bugs him until he understands it.

In the search for renewable energy, some scientists report excess heat occurring in nuclear-energy experiments at or near room temperature. To determine whether some recent claims of cold fusion were real, CBS television’s 60 Minutes asked Duncan to investigate

Like most scientists, he was skeptical. Duncan searched for errors, asked “annoying questions” and crunched numbers. At Energetics Technologies in Israel, he found repeatable results similar to those of U.S. Navy researchers. Duncan theorizes the excess-heat effect may be a type of nuclear reaction never seen before. “It behooves us to find out,” he says.

The Pentagon is in touch.

You go first

Rob Duncan

Amid books and knickknacks in Duncan's office are sophisticated low-temperature thermometers he has invented. Though now an administrator, Duncan still conducts scientific research in his free time. "The human passion is discovery," he says. "As a scientist, you're humbled by what you don't know."

As in his work, Duncan seeks extremes in his entertainment. “Isn’t it fun to push yourself way beyond where you thought you could go?” he asks. Readers should know that Duncan formerly taught wilderness survival skills. And that he’s had to use them in dicey situations.

In fitness endurance, Duncan has run the Leadville, Colo., Race Across the Sky five times (twice successfully). Winding through the Rocky Mountains at lung-squeezing altitudes, racers must finish the 100-mile ultra-marathon in fewer than 30 hours. Preferably alive.

“You’re not dead till you’re dead,” he says. “What defeats more people is they get outside their comfort zone, get scared and are emotionally defeated.”

Showing his own comfort zone during a hot-air balloon adventure, Duncan volunteered to rappel to the desert floor after the balloon had landed on a rock ledge in high winds and was unable to lift off. Using the balloon’s line, he reached ground and, functioning like a mule, pulled the balloon to a safe landing spot.

Another Duncan pastime — biking — also comes with a fear factor. Duncan rides a hiwheeler, a reproduction of a “boneshaker” cycle from the 1800s. Sitting high atop a front wheel as large as Mars is pure joy, he claims, despite the minor annoyance of having no brakes. To dismount, Duncan grinds his right foot onto the rear wheel and jumps.

“Rob does his death-defying activities when I’m gone for the weekend,” says his wife, Annette Sobel, who prefers their plan to bike across the West Highland Way in Scotland.  But she also hears him speak wistfully about steam engines and fashioning a caboose into a home in the woods. Uh oh.

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Reader feedback

  • What a wonderful story about the vice chancellor for research! Kudos to Nancy Moen and to Shane Epping for the accompanying photos. The jury is still out for me as to terming him a "nerd," but I suppose I'll get over that!

    What I like about these stories is that they show the amazing intellect and abilities of people associated with the University of Missouri — even abilities that are demonstrated outside their work environment. In my professional associations, I often like to ask people to tell me something about themselves that I don't know, and I always find I'm amazed. Stories like these tend to serve that same purpose for me.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012