Stephen Irons

When friends ask Giovanna Truong ’23 why she chose to major in physics, they need not wait long to hear the name “Stephen Irons.” Dr. Irons is the director of lab instruction in the Physics Department, and his love for the field helped ease her doubts about pursuing physics over chemistry.

Soon after meeting Dr. Irons, Giovanna — who is a reporter for the News — realized she had found an engaging lunch partner and a friend. Although he may initially come off as reserved, Giovanna said, “If you can get him to talk, he’s really funny.” She added that “if you can get him to write, that’s something incredible.” Irons’ quiet demeanor conceals his poetic verve, which occasionally compels him to pen email replies in rhyming verse.

As it turns out, poetry writing is not in Dr. Irons’ job description. As the director of physics labs, his official roles include managing lab materials, fine-tuning courses and teaching lab enrollees. He also coordinates the department’s online collection of demonstrations, which in the time before COVID-19 lent demo kits to students and faculty. Outside of college academics, Irons manages the annual Yale Physics Olympics, an outreach program that welcomes students from over 30 Connecticut schools to compete on campus. He also advises the Physics Department’s Girls Science Investigations, a program aimed at enriching middle school-aged girls’ involvement in science.

Over the course of his 20 years at Yale, Irons has been unafraid to flout conventional teaching methods in order to meet the needs of students. When Yale first hired him, the predominant genre of lab instruction — the “cookbook style,” he called it — laid out precise, clear-cut steps for experiments. Although the approach made labs easier to set up, Irons believes it also limited students’ agency. Over the years, he has distanced himself from “cookbook” labs, instead making room for students to navigate experiments more independently.

Irons’ student-led educational model only became more attractive to the Physics Department this fall. With nearly all physics lab sections moved to Zoom, students have gained a new degree of independence: Equipped with wireless devices studded with 23 sensors each, they can carry out complex measurements from home. Bedrooms have turned into laboratories. Yet even with educational norms disrupted, Dr. Irons’ core objectives haven’t wavered.

“I want to demythologize physics,” he said. “It’s a discipline like any other, and looked at in the right way it’s no harder than any other subject.”

He fears, though, that even among confident students physics has gotten the reputation of an “ivory tower discipline,” only accessible to members of a “mystical sect of brainiacs.” On the contrary, Dr. Irons believes that just as someone can enjoy good music without being a musician, any student can learn enough physics to understand its beauty.

To Dr. Irons, the pleasure of studying physics lies in its capacity to reveal Earth’s predictability. When the tides of our world seem so volatile, physics can open students’ minds to a universe governed by laws and mathematical models, calculable by the human mind. “The sheer amazing fact is that the world is understandable… and if you study it carefully enough, you can understand how the world really works — not how you think it works, or not how you might hope it works,” he said. In the world of epidemiology, physics also plays a crucial role: The mathematical models undergirding physics shine a light on the dynamics of disease propagation, a topic into which the Physics Department has delved deeper since last spring.

As the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the rhythms of professional life, Irons leaned into extracurricular pursuits that have long been sources of community for him. This summer, Claire Sattler ’23 crossed paths with him in a virtual Anti-Gravity Society meeting. When she saw him juggling in his front yard, the prospect of taking PHYS 205L suddenly seemed much less intimidating. 

 But Irons’ community engagement is not limited to lighthearted pursuits. Since 2001, he has volunteered for the North Haven Fire Department, where he now serves as a lieutenant firefighter. Irons joined their ranks on a whim 20 years ago, at the urging of a volunteer captain. Then new to North Haven, he was drawn to the special bonds between firefighters, as well as the fulfilling work of community service. Over the years, firefighting has come to play a significant role in Dr. Irons’ life. The job demands that he always remain prepared for a life-or-death emergency, and he keeps a pager alert by his side 24/7. Irons occasionally gets to point out physics concepts on the job. He always has a water pressure lesson up his sleeve, and he sometimes smuggles a Geiger counter to the firehouse to demonstrate radiation detection.

As for his poetry hobby, Dr. Irons admits that it might seem unlikely for a physics professor. Yet his interest in writing dates back to high school, where he composed short stories. As a freshman at the College of William & Mary, he enrolled in a short story writing course, where he met his wife. Poetry, however, did not become a favorite pastime of his until adulthood, when the anxiety of family gift-giving led Irons to reject the consumerism of the tradition. Limericks, he decided, would make a more original present for his friends and family members. When Dr. Irons’ father recently celebrated his birthday, a poem awaited him: “To grow older is surely no crime / We all do it and it’s totally fine / 79’s just a number / over which you shouldn’t lose slumber. / What’s cool is it’s also a prime!”

Now, Irons also uses limericks as an educational tool. As Giovanna was walking past his lecture room last year, she noticed a poem pasted to the windows of the hallway: “It was something like, ‘When you’re measuring a set of data, be sure to take uncertainties, you’ll need them latah.’” Before long, the two began exchanging poems. Inspired, Giovanna soon wrote a limerick dedicated to Dr. Irons. The next weekday, Giovanna was greeted again by a poem posted on the wall — this time addressed to her. “I think that was the moment I decided to be a physics major,” she said. 

If you ever find yourself on the fence about studying physics, perhaps Irons’ poetic musings can help guide you, too:

What joy resides in examining life?

It’s wet, and foul-stench’d you must needs agree

In ev’ry result uncertainty’s rife

There’s naught but despair in biology.

In messing with flasks, here’s my reaction,

What fun could exist in such industry?

Cooking up unholy toxic concoctions

Love can’t be had where there’s bad chemistry. 

Do not go astray worshipping number.

Choose not its false logic ’tis but the wrong path.

It’s proof that this pick could not be dumber.

You shall derive no peace in chasing math.

What choice but to succumb to the lyrics

Of the seductive language of physics.

Jesse Roy | jesse.roy@yale.edu