Mississippi College | Beacon Magazine

Students at Vanderbilt University file into the auditorium, a few stifling yawns as they take their seats.

When the class opens with a high-action clip from the Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy classic 48 Hours, the yawning stops. When the lights go up and their 80-year-old professor strolls into the classroom costumed as Billy the Kid, the students break out in smiles, and when the same professor blasts himself out of the classroom on a go cart propelled by what looks like a fire extinguisher and leaves a sweeping vapor trail, the students applaud while laughing out loud. Maybe physics won’t be so dull, after all.

Students in this “physics for non-science majors” class are lucky enough to be studying under Dr. Joseph “Joe” Hamilton ’54. Dr. Hamilton is not only an outstanding instructor with a 55-year track record at Vanderbilt University, but is also one of the world’s most brilliant nuclear physicists.

According to a former Vanderbilt University chancellor, “We don’t count Joe Hamilton’s publications. We weigh them.” Dr. Hamilton has published more than 1,000 papers and articles on nuclear physics, as well as articles on general scientific topics. He is the co-author of 14 research books, an undergraduate physics textbook, and How Things Work, a book for middle and high school students released by National Geographic. He has directed the Ph.D. theses of 62 graduate students and the postdoctoral training of more than 100 Ph.D. graduates, and has also given lectures at K-12 schools designed to interest young people in science.

Dr. Hamilton has delivered more than 500 lectures and has been featured at research seminars at universities and conferences in 49 countries worldwide. He has served as a visiting or adjunct professor at universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, China, Russia and France.

Dr. Hamilton’s office at Vanderbilt is crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, papers, and memorabilia from his groundbreaking work and extensive travels. A plaque proclaiming him the winner of the International Scientific and Technological Cooperation Award of the People’s Republic of China shares space with footballs, baseballs, and basket- balls autographed by members of the Vanderbilt Commodores, Tennessee Titans, and Los Angeles Dodgers teams. Between framed photos of Hamilton at the Dodgers Fantasy Baseball Camp (he made the hit that scored the winning run), certificates proclaiming his scientific achievements, and his eight honorary doctoral degrees from universities in the United States and abroad, there is scarcely an inch of wall space left.

Mississippi College Connections

Dr. Hamilton met his wife of 53 years, Jannelle, at an MC Baptist Student Union conference in Canada. Several MC graduates have completed their Ph.D. thesis work and seven MC seniors did their honors thesis work with Dr. Hamilton at Vanderbilt, and two of his Vanderbilt Ph.D. students have gone on to teach at Mississippi College. Years ago in Nashville, Dr. Hamilton taught Sunday School classes to MC President and Vanderbilt alumnus Dr. Lee Royce. 

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Hamilton was the driving force behind the establishment of major nuclear research facilities in Tennessee, and spearheaded that state’s emergence as a world center for research in nuclear physics.

Oh, and in his spare time? Dr. Joe Hamilton has co-discovered not one, not two, but three new elements that will soon be added to the periodic table. Not too bad for a man whose original career goals never included science.

“I would have loved to have been a professional baseball player, an opera singer, or a cowboy,” Hamilton recalls. “When I enrolled at Mississippi College, I had never taken a course in physics.”

At MC, Hamilton played baseball and football and also performed in 42 concerts with the traveling choir, earning letters in football and in music. He began his college career as a history major, but soon switched to math, which came to him so easily that he had completed a major in mathematics by the end of his sophomore year. When a professor suggested he pick up a minor in physics, Hamilton discovered his true calling. He graduated from MC with a double major in math and physics, then completed his master’s degree and doctorate in physics at Indiana University.

Following a fellowship in Sweden, Dr. Hamilton joined the staff at Vanderbilt University in 1958. His 55 years in service make him the longest-tenured professor at Vanderbilt. Over those five-plus decades, Dr. Hamilton has taught physics at every level, from basic courses for non-science majors to supervising the complex work of graduate students.

His engaging teaching style includes live demonstrations that bring physics to life. Dr. Hamilton uses a shoot-out scene from “48 Hours” to teach students that every force is met with an equal and opposite force. His Billy the Kid costume is part of an example illustrating how the recoil from a gun acts upon the shooter, and his “rocket cart” demonstrates principles of momentum conservation.

“The demonstrations help students visualize the concepts they’re trying to learn,” Dr. Hamilton says. “It’s so important even for non-science majors to understand how physics works. These students will go on to become businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and political leaders. Learning the principles of physics helps cultivate and hone the critical thinking skills they’ll need for success in any field.”

Another trait Dr. Hamilton tries to instill in his students is persistence. One of the textbooks he authored includes a quotation from Calvin Coolidge, which admonished, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a prov- erb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Although his wife often says he “has taken persistence from a virtue to a vice,” Dr. Hamilton’s persistence was the key to making Tennessee a world center in nuclear research. He worked tirelessly to create never-before-modeled part- nerships between the state of Tennessee, the federal government, and public and private universities that led to the 1971 founding of the University Isotope Separator at Oak Ridge (UNISOR). Ten years later, Dr. Hamilton founded the Joint Institute for Heavy Ion Research (JIHIR) in Oak Ridge. UNISOR and JIHIR were the first major nuclear physics research facilities of their kind in the United States, and continue to attract scientists from around the world to Tennessee to conduct research. Dr. Hamilton’s persistent, ongoing efforts to secure university, state, and federal fund- ing and state-of-the-art equipment for JIHIR earned the facility the nickname, “the Hamilton Hilton.”

“I was Dr. Hamilton’s graduate student in 1965.

He was my mentor and my ‘scientific father,’ so to speak, and we’ve remained colleagues and friends ever since. What impresses me most about Joe today is that at 80 years old, he is still at the center of the action in nuclear physics research. He continues to play a leadership role in the research community, he keeps reinventing himself to stay on the leading edge of physics, and he publishes at the pace of someone who is trying to make it in the field instead of someone who has long ago proven himself. Joe is as driven at 80 as he was at 40. The only negative thing I can say about Joe Hamilton comes from the perspective of a former student. It galls every one of us that at some point, we all started looking older than Joe.” — Dr. Lee Riedinger, Professor of Physics, University of Tennessee 

When Vanderbilt University staged a symposium in 2008 commemorating Dr. Joseph Hamilton’s 50 years on the faculty, the speakers included colleagues, scientists, and former students who credited Dr. Hamilton with bringing together hundreds of scientists from around the world, and for his lasting contributions to international cooperation, education, and research.

Dr. Hamilton again received international acclaim between 2010 and 2012, when he and a team of international colleagues co-discovered new elements 113, 115, and 117. Discovered through extensive laboratory work, these new elements provide confirmation of long-standing theoretical predictions of their existence, and are valuable as potential new sources of energy and for other, as-yet-unimagined scientific applications. More than 250 newspaper articles worldwide described the discovery of element 117, and the McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science and Technology 2012 touted its discovery as among the most important scientific happenings of the year. As one of its primary discoverers, Dr. Hamilton will have the privilege of naming element 117 once the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry approves the new element for addition to the periodic table. Dr. Hamilton is a strong supporter of Mississippi College and has returned to the MC campus a number of times as a guest lecturer, where he wowed the next generation of scientists. But despite his many achievements, even this brilliant physicist admits there are some technical skills he hasn’t attempted to grasp.

“I have never quite mastered the art of putting together PowerPoint presentations,” Dr. Hamilton says, “and for my eightieth birthday, some of my colleagues gave me an iPad Mini. Fortunately, I have learned to use it, but I am still no expert.”

Science and Religion

Dr. Joe Hamilton is living proof that brilliant scientists can also be men of faith. Dr. Hamilton, in cooperation with his wife, Jannelle, has published multiple articles on science and the Bible, and has lectured extensively on the topic of science and religion, speaking at universities and conferences throughout the United States and in China, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippine Islands. • Recently, Dr. Hamilton heard from a woman who had read one of his articles on science and religion when she was struggling with the issue as a college biology student in the 1980s. The article had convinced the woman that she could be a scientist and still believe in God. Thirty years later, she contacted Dr. Hamilton, explaining, “I want to share your article with my son, but I have to know that you still stand by what you wrote.” • Dr. Hamilton assured her she could share the article with her son in good conscience. While his knowledge of science had grown exponentially in the nearly 30 years since he wrote the article, so had his faith.