Three Professors Hold Last Class to Open Homecoming Weekend

News Story categories: Astrophysics Mathematics Physics
(Left to right): Society of Alumni President Robyn Diehl McDougle '98, Ph.D; Dr. Bruce Torrence, Dr. Eve Torrence, and Dr. George Spagna at homecoming weekend kickoff

A Homecoming tradition saw three recently retired professors return to campus to deliver their “last class” at Randolph-Macon College.

Dr. Eve Torrence, Professor Emerita of Mathematics; Dr. Bruce Torrence, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics; and Dr. George Spagna, Associate Professor Emeritus of Physics and Director Emeritus of the Keeble Observatory, spoke to an audience in Blackwell Auditorium on Friday, October 8 for the kickoff of Homecoming weekend.

Each professor gave a presentation on their specialty, with topics ranging from the science of shapes to dark matter in the universe. Incoming Society of Alumni President Robyn Diehl McDougle ’98, Ph.D. introduced the three speakers before awarding them certificates of appreciation from the College.

Dr. Eve Torrence discussed the geometric underpinnings of her sculpture, “Sunshine,” on display in the Copley Science Center. Her sculpture is based on Tom Hull’s famous origami model and incorporates ideas from the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.

She began her hands-on lecture by handing out different shapes to audience members for a physical representation of her artistic vision. “Sunshine” is a five-foot diameter rendering of five intersecting tetrahedra. During her lecture, she showed pictures of the assembly process as she pieced together the sculpture’s 30 aluminum pieces, which were constructed with the help of Hanover Powder Coating. Over the course of five hours and with the help of many hands, Dr. Eve Torrence was able to install the finished piece in Copley where it hangs today.

She concluded her talk by saying how the sculpture reminds her of the sun rising over Copley, signifying that every day is a good day to study the sciences. 

“Thank you for a wonderful 27 years at RMC,” she said. “The freedom I had to teach classes on subjects that interested me, like origami and fiber arts, has been wonderful.”

Her husband, Dr. Bruce Torrence, presented next, highlighting a few of the projects from a freshman-level class he developed to explore the mathematics behind three-dimensional (3-D) printing. When he first offered the course, 3-D printing was still a relatively arcane academic discipline. He referenced several recent news articles, one of them about 3-D-printed houses near Nacajuca, Mexico in The New York Times, to demonstrate the field’s wide application today.

“Using a 3-D printer to create something out of thin air is an analogue for what mathematics is really like,” Dr. Bruce Torrence said. Both, he explained, are based on axioms: “Use these tools to build this,” he said.

He used his last class to showcase a selection of student work created in his 3-D printing class, which he taught three times at RMC. Included among them were a sundial, a Halloween mask, a spirograph set, and a smartphone holder. Students designed the products from start to finish, drafting ideas using computer-aided design software before operating 3-D printers themselves.

“I personally find it very satisfying to combine mathematical ideas with something tangible,” he said. “To use the visual sense as well as touch to see how things are put together.”

Finally, Dr. George Spagna took the stage to deliver his “first” lecture, which he originally gave in 1985 while interviewing for a one-year visiting appointment at the College. His lecture topic was the “missing mass problem.” It maintains that the universe’s observable mass accounts for only a fraction of the gravitational pull between celestial bodies, meaning most of the universe’s matter is either invisible or missing. The problem has baffled astronomers for decades.

Drawing on classical theories of motion, Dr. Spagna demonstrated how Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation doesn’t account for the speed at which our galaxy, and the universe in general, is expanding. The Newtonian model says the universe should be slowing down. In fact, the inverse is true.

Dr. Spagna incorporated findings from the Hubble Telescope to show that, based on how fast galaxies are moving away from each other, there must be eight-to-10 times the amount of visible matter in the universe that is invisible to account for the universe’s expansion rate. This “dark matter” makes up 96% of the universe. Although we can’t see or understand the majority of our cosmos, Dr. Spagna said this seemingly unsettling problem fills him with pride.

“There is something to the notion that we are a part of the 4%,” Dr. Spagna said. “We’re self-aware and can ask, ‘What’s out there?’”

About This Year’s “Last Class” Lecturers

Dr. Eve Torrence joined RMC’s mathematics faculty in 1994. She served as president of Pi Mu Epsilon (PME), the National Mathematics Honor Society, from 2011-2014, and served on the national council of PME from 2002-2017. She chaired the Maryland/District of Columbia/Virginia section of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and RMC’s Committee on the Faculty. In 2007, she was the co-recipient of the Trevor Evans Award for exceptional writing published in the journal Math Horizons. Dr. Torrence is currently a member of the board of the Bridges Organization, which organizes the world’s largest interdisciplinary conference on the connections between mathematics and the arts.

Dr. Bruce Torrence joined Randolph-Macon College in 1993. Prior to that, he served two years as a visitor at Georgetown University after completing his Ph.D. in pure mathematics at the University of Virginia. Dr. Torrence’s research interests in algebraic topology, graph theory, and combinatorics, with a special interest in realizing visualizations of abstract mathematical ideas. He chaired RMC’s Math department from 1999 to 2018, winning RMC’s Samuel Nelson Gray Distinguished Professor Award in 2017, and served as co-chair of the Honors Program from 1997-2000. He currently co-chairs the Art Exhibitions Committee for the Bridges Organization.

Dr. George Spagna served 35 years at RMC, 16 of them as Physics Department Chair. He was the longtime director of the Keeble Observatory, and in 2017 he spearheaded a major overhaul of the observatory building and its state-of-the-art Ritchey-Chretien telescope, the largest telescope between Washington D.C. and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Additionally, Spagna served as the facilitator of the Astrophysics minor and the Sigma Pi Sigma advisor. He also participated on many College committees, including those focused on improving the climate of the College for minorities and people with disabilities. He was awarded the 2021 Sigma Pi Sigma Outstanding Service Award, celebrating his decades of service to Randolph-Macon College students.