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Trefil featured in Provost faculty spotlight

Jim Trefil: Professor, Physicist, and Author Shaping the Language of Science 

Jim Trefil describes Mason as “a place where you can try new things” and that’s exactly what he did when he joined the Robinson program in 1987 as a physics professor. He wanted to change the way science was taught to people who were not going to be sciensts.

“I was the first scienst to be brought into the Robinson program,” he explained. “It was a unique opportunity to introduce the idea of scienfic literacy into the way we teach science. Not the way we teach science to sciensts, but the way we teach it to the other 99% of the populaon.” 

Trefil shares a deep history with Mason’s Fairfax campus and its evoluon as he recently celebrated a milestone of fiy years of service at the university. The first course he taught at Mason was Great Ideas in Science with the idea that people who didn’t major in science would learn enough about it so they could be good, intelligent cizens.  

He has used that model not only in his teaching but also his research. Over the last two decades, Trefil’s work has focused on scienfic literacy and ensuring others have a crical basic understanding of specific topics, such as how the atmosphere and oceans are impacted by climate change.

 “Every person that’s a cizen and is going to vote needs to make judgements about problems facing the country and most problems have a scienfic component to them,” he said. “You don’t have to be a scienst; you don’t have to do the science but you always have to understand the topic at debate. If you’re scienfically literate, you’re going to be a much more intelligent voter and cizen.”

 Trefil first discovered the world of science while exploring museums in Chicago during his childhood. It was not unl he quesoned topics taught in the classroom as a chemistry major at the University of Illinois that Trefil realized physics was his true passion.  

“I was one of the guys who developed a Quark model. This was a forefront thing back in the 60’s and 70’s; now it’s part of textbooks,” he said.

Following this development, Smithsonian magazine published a piece on his Quark model and Trefil’s wring career took off. He has since writen more than fiy books.

“I want people to understand a litle bit about how the world operates,” he said. “Anything I’m teaching, I’ve probably either have put in a book or will put in a book.”

Writen with Robert Hazen, The Sciences: An Integrated Approach, 9thEditionis used at hundreds of universies around the countryand “applauded by students and instructors for its easy-to-read style and detail appropriate for non-science majors.” He is currently working on a book project about supermassive black holes with his colleague Shobita Satyapal, a professor in the physics and astronomy department, which is set to publish in 2024 by Smithsonian Books.

 Supermassive centers on supermassive black holes that lurk in the hearts of galaxies and can be as massive as 70 billion times the mass of our sun,” Satyapal said. “The book aims to bring cutting edge state of the art research in the field to the public in an understandable and engaging format.”

 Satyapal described Trefil as an incredibly engaging and motivating collaborator and noted a fondness of his broad range of interests and vast knowledge base.  

 “I am very inspired by Jim’s dedication to scientific literacy,” she said.  

Sll in its rough dra stage, another wring project Trefil is involved in focuses on future technologies and will be published by Naonal Geographic.

Outside of Mason, Trefil can be seen singing in a choir, enjoying music, and going for long walks. He is also an amateur wine maker and takes joy in making his own wine from flowers. Living with Parkinson’s Disease, Trefil takes interests in working out and keeping in check with his health and body. He is managing his condion with the help of a really skillful personal trainer.  

As he looks to the future, he follows the advice he tells his students: “never be afraid of failure and to mold the curveballs life throws at you into something even beter through change and flexibility.”