UNLV will dedicate the Robert L. Bigelow Physics Building, one of three new structures recently opened on the university campus, Dec. 1 at 3 p.m.
Nobel Prize winner Arthur Schawlow will deliver the keynote address. Schawlow, a Stanford University researcher, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1981 for his work with Nicolaas Bloembergen on the development of laser spectroscopy, a field that uses laser beams as analytical tools. Laser spectroscopy plays an important role in the research of several scientists in UNLV's physics department.
Named for the father of Las Vegas businessman and UNLV donor Robert M. Bigelow, the 70,000-square-foot physics building was completed in 1994 at a cost of more than $11 million. It was designed by Holmes Sabatini Associates Architects and built by Sletten Construction of Nevada.
Housing the teaching and research facilities for some 1,000 students and the 15 faculty members of UNLV's physics department, the structure itself offers symbolic representations of some of the scientific principles and legends of physics.
Because the study of physics -- the physical properties of the universe -- depends so heavily on mathematics, the architects incorporated a sine curve into the two-story undulating glass wall that faces the building's canyon-like courtyard.
Vaulted roofs above laboratories are reminiscent of the Quonset huts that served as research facilities at Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was born during the World War II.
Ceilings of corridors and lobbies throughout the building are hung with vertical banners in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet -- the colors of the visible spectrum.
In the courtyard, palm trees march in mathematical progression, beginning at the intersection of the structure's two wings and leading out into an open plaza. They represent the expanding universe posited by the Big Bang theory.
Concentric, colored circles in the plaza concrete radiate like the ripples from a pebble dropped into calm water. The first set of rings begins at the "Big Bang" palm trees. The second set starts at an apple tree -- representing Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravity -- planted near the building's main entrance.
By intention, the building has an industrial, functional look about it. Conduit and wires are exposed at ceiling level -- not just in labs, but in hallways, as well. They give the impression of a work in progress, which, in fact, is the case. As research projects change, communication and power lines can be changed to support them without tearing up the building.
Although the new facility has plenty of open, well-lighted public areas, the labs are windowless, the air is highly filtered, possible sources of electrical interference are isolated, the room temperature is carefully controlled, and the floors are isolated from the walls, so as to protect sensitive lasers and other equipment from unwanted environmental influences.
"Mass is crucial in a building like this," says architect Jess Holmes. "Much of the instrumentation requires that there be no vibrations. They need as much stability as possible. So we designed the building to be made of solid concrete and concrete block.
"Physics is a delicate science, but it deals with harsh elements and brutal forces. This building itself is brutal -- not in a negative way, but because it is so heavy and massive. That is a technical requirement for the structure's intended use, but it also represents to us that physics is a very solid, brute-force science."
The building consists of 13 research and eight teaching laboratories, two astronomy labs, and two demonstration labs, along with faculty and administrative offices.
The research labs, all located on the first floor, are staggered along the southern wing to reduce corridor lengths and to create the semi-enclosed exterior courtyard, a place for students and faculty to enjoy a protected external environment.
Several of the labs are equipped with traveling cranes capable of moving heavy pieces of equipment, such as a 500-pound vacuum chamber.
The teaching labs are located on the second floor, as is the astronomy dome and telescope pedestals.
This building greatly expands both teaching and research facilities. It will enable the physics department to accommodate growth in the faculty that will come as the Ph.D. program is fully implemented. It will also meet the increasing demands of students.
At the time of the building's dedication, there are 15 faculty members and 60-70 majors. But many more students use the facility. Introductory courses attract many non-majors, especially engineering students. And popular courses like introductory astronomy draw students seeking to fulfill core requirements. Introductory courses alone enroll as many as 900 students each semester.
The program has, in fact, had to turn away as many as 200 students per semester, largely because there was no space for extra classes, but also because there were not enough faculty to teach them. The Robert L. Bigelow Physics Building provides space for additional faculty and for the ever-increasing number of students.
It also provides lab space for the faculty members who research specialties such as laser physics, astronomy and astrophysics, and condensed-matter physics.